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Better Startups? Bring back the Grand Tour

Better Startups? Bring back the Grand Tour

The great country houses of Britain are full of beautiful art from other countries, but the UK’s great technology clusters have to paint their own. It is time to start thinking ahead and to put this right because successful startups are the masterpieces of today. Technology is the artefact of our time.

For 200 years up to around 1840 it was customary for well heeled young men to set off from Britain on a Grand Tour around Europe in search of intellectual, social, ethical and political understanding. Travel was not easy or quick – particularly with a sizeable entourage in tow – and these Tours regularly extended over one or more years. We can’t measure the impact on Britain’s understanding of international cultures but contribution to art in this country is clear: the contents of every major gallery and country house in the land is testament to that.

What is needed, if we are to bring the best technology to Britain, is re-engagement with the Grand Tour, twenty-first century style. Rather than encourage our top graduates to stay in Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial and the rest we should encourage them to go East. They should seek roles in technology companies in Asia Pac, travel the world selling technology products, observing markets and developing ideas. And then, after two years, they should come back and build start-ups informed by market experience and linking technologies sourced from many geographies.

It is a long game (but then I have always been a fan of Delayed Gratification). Enlightened students would return to the UK with savvy ideas and an understanding of markets in their heads. But they don’t need to come back weighed down by bundles of patents – even Intellectual Property lawyers admit that IP, the artefact’s DNA profile, most often ‘walks’ in an employee’s head in the form of ideas and concepts, rather than in his or her briefcase in the form of stolen Patents.

What is disturbing about this is that other countries are doing it already. UK universities are charged with three objectives – Teaching, Research and Innovation. Chinese universities have the same three objectives plus a fourth which, roughly translated, means: conquer the world by exporting our students. Have a look at the country of origin of higher degree students at your own university and tell me how you think China is getting on with this. Some say that the Chinese cultural environment squashes innovative thinking such that useful technology is unlikely to be home grown, but plenty of our best technology artefacts will walk their way back to China and other enlightened countries over the next few years.

The tradition of the grand Tour faded in Britain when international travel became easier – specifically when, from the 1840s, train travel shortened travel times. Staying for two years wasn’t necessary after that. Worse still anyone could do a Tour – or a drunken gap year – so the elite stopped bothering to do it properly. But it is time to recognise the value of a wider world view and to re-instate the practice of a Grand Tour for our brightest minds. And who knows, some might even return with a little cultural empathy too.

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