The UK fintech scene is truly thriving. There are a few big fintech hubs around the world… and obviously London is on the list. It has been a major financial centre for quite some time now. That actually predates the modern financial system. And you could very much argue that it even predates the United States’ existence (it is a young country!). So naturally, the fintech industry as we know it now flourished over the years in the British capital. But behind the success of London, there is a whole host of reasons why the UK fintech industry is going from strength to strength. There are other cities all around the country that are also home to great fintech communities. What is the UK’s secret recipe for success? And what is happening in fintech outside of London?
What is the secret recipe of UK Fintech?
As you might expect, it is not going to be a short answer “it’s because of X“. Similar to most things in life, the success of the UK fintech scene does not come down to one single thing: it is actually a good mix of factors. When you bring everything together, you end up with a great startup ecosystem that fosters innovation.
Which is also why it is so hard to replicate elsewhere…
At the centre of any businesses, there are people. Talented people. Talent is key to the ongoing success of any given company. That can be entrepreneurs that start successful fintech businesses or people working in fintech companies, helping them to grow along the way. Home-grown and international talent coming to London has propped up the fintech industry in recent years. Access to a large pool of foreign talent, notably, has been crucial. Actually, it is estimated that half of UK’s fastest-growing businesses have a foreign founder.
That has been supported by world-class universities across the country. From Oxford to Cambridge and London: the so-called “golden triangle”. But also beyond that, including Durham University, Strathclyde University in Glasgow and many more. A lot of talent come out of these universities and go on to achieve great things in fintech.
Access to investments. UK is by far leading in Europe in terms of investments in fintech companies: $4.1 billion invested across 408 deals in 2020. Only the United States do better than that. It is relatively easy for American venture capital funds and other investors to set up shop in the UK because of the common language and a similar culture. Easy access to capital through a solid angel investor community as well has been key to fintech startups to grow and become giants.
As the finance sector is quite established in London, a number of supporting industries have developed alongside it as well. That ranges from specialised law firms to consulting companies of all sorts. The fact that the English legal system is well-established beyond the UK borders is a helpful factor for the fintech industry. Other professional services such as audit are also strong. It meant that there was already a welcoming business ecosystem for fintech companies to grow into.
Regulatory and legal environment
An easy-going regulator and supportive government makes a good team when it comes to innovation in financial services. Any businesses for that matter. The UK’s financial regulator, the FCA, was the first to launch a regulatory sandbox in which companies could try and test their products before launch. It has since then been replicated all around the world, seen as an example of good practice when it comes to marrying regulation and innovation. And as mentioned just above, the fairly clear legal system mostly based on common law, as well as statutory legislation, makes it very understandable for insiders and outsiders.
There are also a number of industry bodies that also aim to give a voice to the fintech industry and create an even more favourable environment. From Innovate Finance to FinTech Scotland, these organisations have been helping and supporting the growth of many startups over the years, and that all over the country.
UK Fintech is not only London
All over the country because the thing is, that it is not because there is one big fintech hub in a country that there cannot be activity elsewhere. Actually, a lot of smaller regional hubs have developed in the past few years. And several cities now have a thriving fintech scene.
North of England
Manchester, Leeds, and other cities in the North of England have particularly robust fintech scenes. For example, that is the case of Durham where the neobank Atom Bank, which is partly owned by BBVA, is headquartered.
Glasgow and Edinburgh are historically important banking hubs, with Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group, Virgin Money (formerly Clydesdale Bank) all headquartered in Scotland.
So naturally, a few fintechs have sprouted there, for instance Money Dashboard in Edinburgh.
Other notable cities
Cambridge and Oxford, which are making the “golden triangle” as mentioned above, are hotbeds for innovation. They are not specifically focused on fintech, but the two university towns are natural magnets for bright people.
There are a few local champions, some of which are now taking on the world. Put aside Greensill for a minute, there are a few remarkable success stories:
What next for UK Fintech?
Obviously, however, the outlook is clouded by two major things.
Firstly, the B word: the actual effect of Brexit on the fintech sector is still unknown. The political and economic uncertainty has not yet had a serious impact on the fintech ecosystem in the British capital and the wider UK. Will London remain a top fintech hub? Will the UK remain a leader in fintech? Chances are that in the short term, little will change. It takes time to build a favourable ecosystem and London has all the key ingredients. That does not mean that other cities in Europe and beyond are not going to try to take advantage of the situation and lure fintech businesses…
Secondly, the Covid-19 impact on the concept of tech hub is also unknown. That’s a bigger issue that will not only impact London but other cities across the world. The actual concept of tech hub is threatened. That’s because remote working is much easier, and therefore it is unsure that we will find the same concentration of talent and companies in one place going forward. It remains to be seen what that means in practice, though. It might be that actually there is an increase in companies incorporated in the UK with a global workforce, driven by legal and financial considerations as mentioned above…