Engineering vs. Technology

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If you are an engineering startup and proud raise your hand! It is nearly a year since the first issue of Startups Magazine, and if it has opened my eyes up to one thing, it is that there are a lot of you startups out there – which is a great thing!

But what did get me thinking as I sat down to write this article of the 'Engineering Edit' series, is that I personally have not seen many startups with a purely engineering focus.

Engineering startups are crucial to the UK, as we all know that there is a massive skills shortage, and the Government would love nothing more than if those numbers were given a boost from entrepreneurs.

But how much does engineering actually contribute to the UK economy and how important is it that we fill this skills gap, especially with the uncertainty of Brexit looming?

Engineering remains a huge part of the UK economy - contributing about 23% of the UK turnover and employing just under one in five people in the UK workforce. Jon Excell, of The Engineer said: “There are many challenges to maintaining, and hopefully improving, on this formula (not least finding a workable solution to the Brexit conundrum) but one vital piece of the puzzle is ensuring that the engineering wealth-generators of tomorrow are able to grow and prosper.”

So where are all the engineering startups? And is it harder for engineering startups to break through in the UK compared to more technology-based startups (hardware and software)?

The UK doesn’t have a great track record in this regard. However, we can see some positive signs that things are changing. In early 2018, research by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub suggested strongly that the UK no longer lags behind the US when it comes to engineering startups. Excell added: “Building on this however is vital, and there are a number of ways that industry, academia, government and the media can help.”

So to close the gap how do we encourage more engineering startups?

The first thing we need to concentrate on is putting an end to the outdated distinction between engineering and technology. Excell commented: “If the sector is to cast its net wide, tap into the opportunities presented by the blurring boundaries between once distinct areas and attract fresh talent, it must address perceptions that it stands apart from other industries.”

Secondly, the broader UK engineering community also needs to be encouraged to become less risk averse. The industry needs to learn that playing it safe isn’t always going to pay off, and a little gambling can really benefit. Excell said that of course addressing this is perhaps doubly-difficult in the uncertain climate created by Brexit, “but it’s vital that fledgling firms are given the confidence to take those first bold steps, and that larger companies are emboldened to help them on their way.”

The final stepping stone to encourage more engineering is focusing more on the academic stages with the potential workforce. Despite the UK industry’s strong track record of collaborating with the academic research base, there is still more that can be done to tap into this source of innovation. Data is the best way to learn, and we now have access to such a huge amount of data, the question is why aren’t we using it to benefit ourselves more?