1 March 2016

Africa: Meet the Man Who Helps African Tech Start-Ups Sell Into the UK - Breaking Out of the Comfort Zone of Your Home Market

Anthony Sheehan is one of UK Trade and Investment's "dealmakers" whose role is to help exceptional start-ups get into the UK market. Russell Southwood spoke to him about two African tech start-ups he has helped and some lessons for Africa from the scheme.

Anthony Sheehan is not a British civil servant but entrepreneur himself, who founded and runs a locational start-up called Near You Now. He's been involved with the Global Entrepreneur Programme (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/entrepreneurs-setting-up-in-the-uk/entrepreneurs-setting-up-in-the-uk ) for 3 years now.

"It helps entrepreneurs become successful (in the UK)... We help them with accelerating growth when here on a case-by-case basis. Usually it's about making connections, opening up networks, getting media partners and finding investors. You could do it by yourself but it might take you 6-12 months."

To some extent, they play a role a bit like a domestic incubator but in another market:"You might have the technology skillset but need business and strategy people. You might need to develop a strategy to roll-out the business. We can help with that." He also stays alongside then:"The people who came 2-3 years ago I still meet with them regularly. I'm with them for the duration. It's entrepreneur working with entrepreneur."

Each of the dealmakers as they are described by UKTI has a specific sectoral expertise including clean tech and manufacturing. His own expertise is mobile, locational and big data analytics.

Over the course of the programme 300 companies have come to the UK generating GBP1 billion of investment. The companies have come from the USA, Australia, India, Eastern Europe and Scandanavia. Up until a year ago, there was no interest from Africa and China.

"I met Gregory Rockson from mPharma. The business is great and he's a great communicator. He convinced me we should help African entrepreneurs and a couple of companies have come in. I've been hugely impressed by the quality and level of innovation from African entrepreneurs. Some of this may be applicable in the wider world."

He understands well the slightly complex roots of much of this entrepreneurship:"Sometimes it's the diaspora going back to Africa, wanting to find business back there. There's lots of different networks. But there's often a need for expertise to help them go global. In time we will work out the priority markets (in Africa) and build that understanding."

He's currently helping two African tech start-ups. The first of them is Nabda Care from Egypt which has a digital healthcare platform. It has mobile apps, data analytics functionality. It was developed in a private healthcare context and will need to be adapted to fit the NHS, the UK's healthcare system.

But Sheehan felt it had an edge over existing UK products:"It's particularly good where multiple specialist and carer (eg childrens mental health) are involved with a patient. Negotiating the NHS is a key challenge for anyone coming in." He's also tied them into regional funding opportunities in Scotland and Wales.

The second company is 3D Life Prints. The two founders were British and went to work in the Far East but decided to go to Kenya to launch their company. They provide 3D printing of prosthetic limbs:"They bring 3D printing right down to where services are provided. They have bought the cost of a prosthetic arm or leg down from US$1000 to US$50. They use things like bike brake cables that can be sourced locally."

They have two other business opportunities they are looking to bring back to the UK. The first one came out of their existing business. They want to print life size replicas of missiles and mines to teach people about unused ordnance that might harm them:"You can't transport ordnance so they produce life size replicas for education. It's a nice cash generative business."

The second niche opportunity is 3D printing of internal organs and bone structures from MRI scans:"In one particular case with a spinal operation it helped the surgeon involved understand that his planned operation was not going to work." It's currently being piloted at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool.

So how can African entrepreneurs find out about the scheme? Anthony is on Twitter (Anthony_Sheehan) and is "always interested to hear new ideas." There are about 15 dealmakers across different sectors and they are usually working with 4-5 start-ups at any one time. And it's like any opportunity, you have to catch his attention and pitch him.

In my travels, I've noticed how certain countries - Kenya and South Africa in the Anglophone space and Senegal in the francophone space - attract entrepreneurs from outside the country. But no-one in Government seems to see this as an opportunity that they might address in a similar way to the UK Government with a an entrepreneur, peer-to-peer dealmaker structure.

In a globalized world, it will be important for countries to market themselves in this way to both entrepreneurs and those working with them. For example, the Techstars' Fintech accelerator programme started at the beginning of the year in Cape Town. It could have gone to many different places but chose South Africa. So African countries need to be more aware globally of these kinds of opportunities and be pitching for them.

At the individual African entrepreneur level, there's a big problem that I talked about in the last issue of scale. A single African market may not provide enough scale to sustain the business. Finding global opportunities is really tough but if you can do it then it's one way of breaking out of the single country trap.

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