Prolonged uncertainty over the UK’s post-Brexit policies on immigration and passporting rights has pushed many British tech entrepreneurs and start-ups to strengthen their businesses in mainland Europe.
Currencycloud, the payments company backed by Google Ventures, is one of a number of technology firms that have begun implementing their Brexit contingency plans, establishing offices or applying for regulatory licenses outside the UK because of concerns about hiring staff and accessing clients after Britain leaves the EU.
“While we’d love for the UK to have a soft Brexit, you can’t guarantee that,” said Todd Latham, chief marketing officer and head of product at Currencycloud, which has applied for a regulatory license in the Netherlands. “Our concern is about how we service customers and how we make sure that we’re bringing the best talent into the organisation.”
Startups are seen as a crucial part of the tech “ecosystem” because of the role they play in encouraging innovation. The UK government has attempted to reassure the country’s £170bn tech industry that Brexit will not affect its ability to hire highly-skilled coders or do business in the EU.
Over the past year, prime minister Theresa May and chancellor Philip Hammond have unveiled a number of initiatives, including plans to double the number of “tier 1” visas for “exceptional talent” and establish a new office in government to promote start-ups in artificial intelligence research.
However, smaller start-ups without the resources to support visa applications complain they will face a severe talent shortage if they cannot rely on hiring developers from the EU. A fifth of tech jobs in London are filled by workers from the bloc, according to data from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. Across the country as a whole, they hold 7 per cent of all tech roles, according to an analysis by the department for exiting the EU.
Company founders say hundreds of developers have rejected jobs in the UK since the referendum because of uncertainty over their future status. “The number of candidates we’ve had applying from Spain or France has completely dropped off,” said Aneesh Varma, founder of Aire, a start-up that creates credit scores.
The UK has historically served as Europe’s main start-up centre because of London’s popularity as a base for venture capital investors. But since the EU referendum, countries including France, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain have begun to encroach on its dominance, announcing more fast-track visas and holding events to attract high-profile investors.
A quarter of UK start-up founders surveyed by Silicon Valley Bank this year said they would open a European outpost because of Brexit. The founders and chief executives of a number of other start-ups — including Ensygnia, Inploi, Cablato, Kantox, Ecoisme, Avespa, ETFMatic and Aire — also confirmed they were strengthening non-UK operations before a final deal is struck.
“The market in the UK feels quite sour and it’s going to have an impact on our ability to hire people,” said Matthew de la Hey, co-founder of Inploi, a platform for connecting employers with hospitality workers which is currently raising capital to establish an office in the EU this year. “We have found it much more difficult to do business in the UK [since the vote].”
Many tech firms are shelving plans to hire staff in London, are opening offices in other European countries and are applying to EU regulators for the right to sell financial services in the bloc in case the UK does not secure passporting rights, which enable fintech and other companies to offer financial services across the EU.
In a sign of the pace of change, Germany now has 3 per cent more skilled computer developers than the UK; last year it had 5 per cent fewer, according to data from Atomico, the venture capital group. French start-ups meanwhile agreed more funding deals than the UK for the first time in five years last year.
“Most of the jurisdictions we’ve been in contact with have set up special processes to lure away UK companies,” said Luis Rivera, chief executive of ETFmatic, a fintech start-up that has applied for a licence in Madrid. “We’re not exactly sure how Brexit will end up but in the worst Brexit scenarios . . . we will have to evaluate whether it is worth even being regulated in the UK at all.”