“We need a lot more geniuses,” said Johns, “VCs are getting grief because we’re getting crap returns in Europe and it’s your fault – you entrepreneurs can’t create enough value. So people are retrenching, they’re putting their money into gold – or Greece.”
“We need to re-invent how this works,” added Johns, “when we created CSR it went from four people to $3bn in eight years.”
However things have changed. “At the moment most of the VCs in the world will not invest in silicon companies,” said Johns, “the silicon industry has all the clever people but less clever people write things like Skype, Twitter, Autonomy and LinkedIn and create billions of dollars of value.
Johns concluded: “Hardware is going soft. My investment intentions are going soft.”
He had some ideas where the billion dollar businesses of the future could be built.
One is managing privacy. “Enormous amounts of data are being gathered on everyone and are being sold to the advertising industry so it can target individuals,” said Johns, “but I’ve only see one company pitch to me on this. It’s a vast opportunity.”
Another is using the web to search for ideas. “Putting business plans on the net and getting other people to evaluate it is an obvious thing,” said Johns.
He also though augmented reality has a lot of potential. “You could point a camera at a house and tell it to send a message to the owner offering a price for it,” said Johns, “or point it at a school and find out what the waiting list is. It’s an enormous opportunity.”
Johns reckoned the high-tech community is underutilising a significant UK asset. “Half the world’s advertising agencies and half the world’s digital agencies are in the UK. The other half is in New York. We need to collaborate with them.”
Johns told a good yarn about his most recent trip to the US. “What are you doing here?” asked the Americans. “Looking for opportunities”, replied Johns. “Well you should be doing that in the UK – that’s where we’re looking for opportunities,” replied the Americans.
Agreeing with Johns in Bath was Peter Claydon, founding CEO of picoChip, who asked the question: “Is the Age of Silicon Start-Ups Over?”
Unfortunately, Claydon’s answer was: “It probably is. The Golden Age of the ’80s and ’90s has passed.”
“I left Deltenna about three months ago and I’m looking around at possibilities,” said Claydon, “and starting a silicon company is not top of my list. If you understood what it entails you’d never start – it takes ages to become profitable.”
Claydon conceded that there are “small niche opportunities” for silicon companies like “RF for different frequencies” but the opportunity for ‘the big digital chip” has gone.
That’s because the big digital chip goes into things governed by standards bodies “so it takes ages for your chip to be designed into anything.”
Compounding the problem for silicon start-ups is the phenomenon is that “there are less things than there used to be.”
Claydon instanced TV, GPS terminals, e-Readers, camera, radios and even watches as being subsumed into the ubiquitous mobile handset.
So Claydon is looking at software opportunities. “More and more of everything is being done by software,” he said.