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William and Kate endorse London tech scene, play with HP TouchPad at L.A. event

July 8, 2011 |  6:58 pm

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If you were Britain, whom would you enlist to help promote London's up-and-coming answer to Silicon Valley?

Well how about the royal couple, William and Kate?

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge flew in from Canada to join a conference of venture investors and media executives in Beverly Hills on Friday evening, where the headline topic was how London's new "Tech City" could become a major technology center.

Photos: The Duke and Duchess in L.A.

Although the couple's arrival was the main event of the conference, put on by Variety, their contribution was a quiet one. Arriving to a panel on Tech City about 45 minutes after it had started, the couple took a seat on the stage among the panelists, in front of an audience of hundreds. That's where the action stopped, however: For the next 20 minutes, neither spoke nor was asked any questions by the moderator, "Freakonomics" producer Chad Troutwine. The result was something of an awkward tableau of the couple sitting and smiling while panelists talked about the British tech scene.

When the panel ended, the couple did a brief lap around the room, inspecting various technologies on display, including the HP TouchPad, on which Prince William Googled "Aston Villa" -- the Birmingham Football Club, to go to the team's home page. 

"I think they enjoyed the demonstration," said Michelle Price of Hewlett-Packard, who had loaded a slide show of the royal couple on the device in advance. "They seemed to like that."

As for Tech City, its boosters point out, it has grown from about 15 companies in 2008 to more than 500 today. The British government and prime minister have taken an active interest in promoting the area.

It's a nascent neighborhood in the east of London (Google map here), close to where the 2012 Summer Olympics will be held, and its supporters want it to gain a foothold in the tech world and attract top technology talent.

"The government's role is to try to facilitate it so that companies will come in and establish themselves there and flourish," said Andrew Lewis, the head of trade and investment at the British Consulate in Los Angeles.

Jay Samit, chief executive of Los Angeles online ad firm SocialVibe, said British officials were even monitoring tweets to spot companies considering a move to Europe.

"The second we tweeted that we were thinking of moving to Europe, the British government flew someone out from London to explain the advantages of Tech City," he said. 

Other panelists discussed the challenges that Tech City would face in competing with Silicon Valley.

"When you come to the Valley, it’s very clear that the talent Yahoo, Facebook and Google can attract really overshadows what’s possible in Europe," said Ankur Shah, co-founder of social media advertising firm Techlightenment. "It’ll be key to see in the coming years how the government can help in recruiting and retaining top talent."

Tim Cadogan, CEO of Pasadena online ad firm OpenX, highlighted what he saw as a cultural difference between Britain and the U.S. when it comes to entrepreneurship.

"In the U.S. it is fine to build a company and for it to blow up, and you learn the lessons from that and do a better job next time,"  said Cadogan, himself British. "In the U.K. it's still a little tougher -- when you go through that, you're looked at a little bit differently. And that [the U.S. approach] is an essential ingredient to a successful entrepreneurial climate."

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-- David Sarno

Photo: The royal couple try out HP's TouchPad and talk with HP's Michelle Price. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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