5 March 2020

A programme for scaleups that has style and substance: Tech Nation’s Applied AI programme

By Cervest

A programme for scaleups that has style and substance: Tech Nation’s Applied AI programme

Thinking about putting your tech scaleup on a mentoring/accelerator programme? Cervest’s Chief Business Officer Mark Hodgson describes the advantages that came with being selected to join Tech Nation’s inaugural Applied AI programme.

“Does it accelerate our market discovery and user growth?”

I recall asking this question as our team gathered to draft our application to join the 2019-20 inauguralApplied AI programme at Tech Nation, the UK Government-supported organisation that works across the UK’s technology sector to help drive growth and awareness, improve skills and acquire global talent through a series of programmes. We applied, secured a place, and 6 months on we have not been left disappointed.

Tech Nation’s Applied AI programme is designed for companies like us who seek guidance and collaboration on critical business challenges and opportunities for growth. They have AI at the core of their business and are at Seed to Series A stage. Moreover, only companies who take into account ethical considerations need apply.

So what’s its differentiator?

The programme is refreshingly sensible and straightforward in its design and management, and clearly reflects the learnings from Tech Nation’s more established Future Fifty and Fintech programmes. What differentiates the Applied AI programme is the collaborative content as well as a network of experts for a focused group of companies. I’m talking about business advice and collaboration from others in your cohort (problems aired and shared), from those who are further down the track in Applied AI (think PeakAI and DarkTrace) or from industry or public companies who want to inject deep tech AI into their business at speed… all in a refreshingly nurturing manner. Cervest’s Head of Operations Anna Moses reflected that “the operations-focused session gave us access to companies further down the track, such as Simone Maini, COO of Elliptic, and Mark Logan, former COO of SkyScanner, as well as a room full of businesses that are pushing the boundaries on similar challenges to us. The time we spent together then and since has been immensely valuable for us as we have helped each other in challenges around talent and immigration, organisational design, and setting objectives.”

Tech Nation is a safe environment that supports the internal discussions for building and productising a viable AI-first product. Yes it can appear time-intensive (go in eyes open), but isn’t a monthly business review of MMR and CoS, either. Certainly the economics of AI differ to SaaS, and Cervest has deliberately avoided bending AI-first data and science into resulting SaaS language to make our value more accessible. If you want to lead a category (in our case climate security), then the economics need to be redrawn too.

Drawing upon a solid network of experts from both the private and public sector helped us speed up our market evaluation and access to relevant decision-makers to test our prototype platform. Through the programme we showcased our technology at Downing Street to senior policymakers and UK tech representatives. Similarly, we got to table visa and talent acquisition issues at Ministerial level, our message being that we must attract the very best students, professors and researchers. We got access to experts: we heard from Dale Murray (Founder’s Intelligence) and Simon Calver(BGF Ventures, ex-CEO LoveFilm) on how to manage a Board effectively – sharing their failures and their successes in an open forum.

What it isn't.

Unlike other programmes, the Applied AI programme isn’t a declared path to next-round funding. Nor is it set up for prospective investors to test your business. It has ‘nurture’ very much written into its unwritten constitution.

How did Technation help?

  • Access to founders and C-suite members a few steps ahead of us has been invaluable in helping us determine where to accelerate platform build out and defensibility.

  • Their network events and introductions have resulted in 20% of our prospects.

  • Access to experts has helped us refine our international expansion strategy and our Board cadence.

  • Through Technation we have secured a voice in government: this has been vital not just from a talent and visa advocacy point of view, but also getting closer to the policy drivers critical to our service.

The Applied AI programme’s MO is to truly help you, the customer. We valued its style and approach, which fitted well with Cervest’s own culture. Tech Nation knows it is hand holding a set of companies who are looking at new ways of working. We are a nascent technology, in a nascent category that we intend to own. Our journey means we are evaluating SaaS conventions on computing, data distribution & sharing, and partnering. Tech Nation was collaborative and extensive: it understood our deep challenges and worked with us accordingly. Tech Nation isn’t a place to find answers, but a place to learn how to answer questions yourself.

Who would Tech Nation's Applied AI programme be suitable for?

  • Early-stage VC-backed startups with a core AI feature set or solution, with long lead times to revenue<

Who might the Applied AI programme not be suitable for?

  • Traditional SaaS trying to establish an AI element to their business strategy

  • B2Cs: it seems to be more geared to B2B – but this could merely be my perception

And my advice to Tech Nation?

First, continue to drive innovation where it matters: keep creating this home for the tech community through a sequence of well-connected programmes. A critical mass of people involved in one way or another across the tech landscape in a semi-curated manner is a very powerful tool for individuals, business, investors and government alike. That will only get bigger. Access to leading-edge science and engineering experts alongside business experts would be a great addition.

Second, keep connecting...

… connect business and government. Distil and push business needs on visa, on taxes, on R&D credits to accelerate workable policy that keeps the UK a great place to invest and work in.

… connect government with government. Tech Nation must continue developing their role promoting tech business for government consumption and use, not just promote on behalf of UK plc. I was struck by a recent discussion at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which had policy aims that could benefit from the same technological applications that its fellow policymakers in other government departments such as Defra, BEIS and DCMS could also use. Technology can be effective at promoting government-wide cohesion and inter-departmental cost-efficiency.

Third, thing big. REALLY big.Tech Nation has the grounding and the reach to 10X the UK’s current ambitions as a global technology innovator. That includes bolstering support for Start-Up and Innovator visa applications: talent is our lifeblood. And to this last point, profile your work as best practice so others in the tech sector can see that Tech Nation can indeed drive business and help influence vital policy too. Finally, being a national programme, Tech Nation realises it needs to ensure programme events can be accessed nationwide even though the majority of UK tech companies are located in London. They ran sessions in Scotland and Cambridge; no doubt there are innovative ways to help improve accessibility.

Thank you Tech Nation for helping us on our journey!

As you can tell, we thought Tech Nation was great. If you want to apply, check out their website

About: Mark is Cervest’s Chief Business Officer. His primary focus is ensuring that our science and data platform delivers the greatest possible value for businesses and government, today and tomorrow. If you’re interested in helping Mark and the rest of Cervest build something truly amazing, then please head over to our careers page!

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