Do we want to make unicorns?

If you’re my daughters, the answer to this question is clearly a resounding ‘yes’. Of course we want unicorns! Unfortunately for them I’m not talking about genetically engineering mythical creatures (though I’m sure some evil genius is considering this in a secret lair somewhere).
What I mean by ‘unicorn’ is a start-up with super-scale potential. They’re the hot topic in the UK tech community at the moment. Lots of people are very focused on our ability to create the next Facebook, Uber or Alibaba.

Sitting in a Northern Stars pitch event at Thinking Digital Manchesteryesterday, I listened to a number of start-ups present their vision for how they may — or may not — be the next unicorn. None of them expressed this as an explicit desire, though two of them clearly had the potential to achieve it. Both are addressing fundamental aspects of human existence: sex and food.

M14 Industries has created a niche dating platform off the back of its initial success with Bristlr, a site for matching pogonophiles to beard owners. This was a joke gone right that is now a successful business. If the founder, John Kershaw, can successfully attract people to curate their own niche sites on his platform, the business could scale incredibly rapidly.

Biospheric Studios is the result of Vincent Walsh’s years of PhD work tackling a range of challenges presented by dense urban living around the production of food and the management of waste and pollution. If he can successfully commercialise one of his innovations in a scalable fashion then it could be enormously valuable. Though today he is focused largely on the local market.

I’d be delighted to see either of these organisations scale to unicorn size. They’d contribute to the local economy and they’re tackling issues of some value to humanity. Whatever you think of online dating, a third of couples now meet online.

But should we be so focused on the super-scale successes? I think there’s an argument to be made for turning some of the bright lights currently focused on the nurturing of unicorns on to something that is almost their antithesis.

One of the other people I encountered at the event yesterday was not from a start-up. Well not exactly. He was a developer working on the NHS’s Project Alpha. This rather sci-fi title is the name for a programme aimed at prototyping new health applications. We had one of those brief conversations where you realise you violently agree. The solution to many health (and other public sector) technology problems was not another massive, poorly procured project with a giant vendor. Nor was it about just better procurement. Instead what government digital teams should be doing is laying down standards and interfaces and inviting third parties to develop applications that conform to those standards and interfaces.

This is the basis for the most successful software ecosystems in the world, not least the web itself. And while it occasionally throws up unicorns, like Facebook and Google, it supports millions more niche solutions to individual problems.

We may rue the fact that though a Briton created the Web, none of the most successful businesses it has produced are from here. But I think if we focus on trying to change that, we’re missing the point. The real challenge, and the one that stands to deliver the greatest benefit to this country and others, is not creating the next unicorn.

It is creating the next web.

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Tom Cheesewright