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The Rise and Fall of David Cameron's 'Boy Genius' Tech Guru

The Rise and Fall of David Cameron's 'Boy Genius' Tech Guru

A former rising star of the Tories’ tech strategy, Rohan Silva was considered the future of the U.K. technology industry. But the Whitehall high flyer’s career has stalled: he’s now an office manager in Shoreditch. His promised “ed tech” startup failed to materialise and questions are being asked about how much he really achieved at Number 10. What went wrong?

“Ro,” 33, who raised royal eyebrows earlier this month when he showed up for a reception with the Queen wearing a pair of Converse sneakers, was one of the darlings of Tech City–the Government’s name for a cluster of technology businesses in east London, of which Silva claims in interviews to have been chief architect.

But, as the dust settles after the failure and mothballing of the Tech City quango, local businesses are scratching their heads, wondering how their cheerleader-in-chief ended up renting out desk space, instead of transforming the future of education, as he so noisily claimed he would when he abruptly left the government.

Silva’s track record in government was impressive, if you believe what you read in the papers, the tech blogs and on his own assiduously maintained social media profiles. And with his tousled hair and natty dress sense, it’s easy to imagine why a man who looks more like a Shoreditch barfly than a traditional senior policy advisor might have impressed the suits in Westminster and the blazers in Mayfair.

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, the son of Sri Lankan immigrant parents who came to the U.K. in the 1960s, his life before 2004 has been scrubbed from the internet. We only know what he tells the papers: for example, that his wife Kate McTiernan is an architect who specialises in designing mosques.

But he has, in his short career, been showered with honorifics from afar: Massachusetts Institute of Technology granted him research affiliate status last year, and he was made a policy fellow at Cambridge University in 2011, a position which lasted until 2013.

Independent editor Amol Rajan said last year that he was “destined for great things.” A fawning profile appeared in trade rag Tech City News in 2013. (It’s a gruesome read: you can almost see the writer’s erection beneath his gushing prose.) TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher similarly described him as “undoubtedly the prime architect of the U.K. government’s sea change in attitudes towards the tech startup entrepreneur community.”

Silva landed at job at the Treasury in 2004, on what his LinkedIn profile earnestly documents as the “Fast Stream.”

After then working under George Osborne, Silva ended up in David Cameron’s inner circle, alongside Andy Coulson and Patrick Rock. He quickly acquired a reputation as the Tory administration’s man in the know when it came to Britain’s digital economy. Seemingly, no one bothered to ask why Silva was so obsessed with consumer internet startups, the one segment of the technology industry the U.K. has never excelled at.

Silva was given broad license to suggest ideas to improve the conditions for internet startups–or, at least, to give the impression that Cameron’s government would care about the scrappy cluster of digital businesses in east London. (The Tories were anxious in opposition to underscore their entrepreneurial credentials, so Silva was charged with dreaming up eye-catching but inexpensive initiatives to remind the electorate that the Conservatives were the party of small business.)

After a great deal of vacillation and several protracted negotiations with potential employers stretching back as far as 2011, Silva eventually left the government. “Rohan’s too big for Number 10,” one of Cameron’s other advisors told the Independent at the time. Silva briefed several newspapers that he was departing to launch a tech startup that would change the face of education. 

But the startup never launched, and Silva found himself calling in favours at Index Ventures, whose cosy relationship with the Cameron administration had already yielded dividends, with partner Saul Klein appointed the U.K.’s “Tech Envoy” to Israel. Index threw him a bone, and Silva accepted an “entrepreneur-in-residence” position–considered a stopgap for aspiring entrepreneurs who have failed to come up with an idea, raise funding of their own or join a startup. That position lasted a year. 

Now, he runs Second Home, a co-working space in Shoreditch renting out desk space to startups, and is “Chair” of a website called Spacious that also advertises office space. It’s quite the comedown for the man celebrated ad nauseam in the tech press, though perhaps it’s fitting: after all, his crowning achievement, Tech City, has been a horrible failure, its operations quietly rolled into Boris Johnson’s development agency, London & Partners, last year. 

Tech City lost staff, funding and its national remit in the process, and now exists largely as a branding exercise within L&P. Its critics are bolder than ever before: barely a week goes by without an op ed criticising the outfit for inaction or for the negative consequences of its existence, such as prices going up around Old Street. 

Of course, Tech City was championed by an eccentric cast of characters, most hand-picked by Silva, in its short but checkered history. Original chief executive Eric van der Kleij jumped ship before the bad press began to accumulate–though not, of course, to start his own company, since van der Kleij is still the subject of an individual voluntary arrangement, an alternative to bankruptcy.

Silva has made a point of claiming credit for the appointment of Joanna Shields, a former female tech role model who bombed out of a promising career at Google and Facebook to do public relations for the London borough of Islington. She then rapidly distanced herself from her “CEO” title at Tech City and now styles herself “Chairman,” which better befits the reality that she has never been contactable by the public.

(Shields’ only communication with startups has been the unsolicited emails she sends to Tech City CEOs, which offer no option to unsubscribe. That’s against the law, and has earned her the nickname “Spam Queen” among some mean-spirited startup founders.)

Rohan Silva has a reasonable claim to other accomplishments in government besides Tech City, which is perhaps just as well. Yet just how much credit he can claim for policy innovations, and how effective those innovations have been, is the subject of debate. The “entrepreneur’s visa,” for example–useless outside the EU–appears to have been more of a team effort than Silva implies in his Index Ventures profile. 

Silva also claimed he would be “tough on red tape,” as though that were in any meaningful sense within his remit, but businesses say that, if anything, regulations have been increasing over the past few years, thanks to Brussels legislation over which the British government has no control.

Certainly, Silva can be said to have pioneered the science of ingratiating technology blowhards with government departments. Tens of millions of pounds have been spent on public relations since Tech City officially launched in 2011, but the beneficiaries have not been small businesses, who have only seen their rents go up: instead, careerists and vacuous motormouths have had their obeisance rewarded with lavish receptions at Buckingham Palace and press coverage foisted by the government upon credulous journalists.

In one newspaper profile last year, Silva went so far as to claim he “created” Tech City. That came as news to startups, which are the real, organic drivers of growth in the area. In fact it is difficult to establish what, precisely, has been achieved by the government, since its own metrics are so notoriously unreliable, where they exist. 

Numbers that have emerged from the government departments claiming to measure the success of the Tech City initiative, whether they relate to employment, investment or simply the number of companies started, have been plucked from thin air, with the inevitable consequence that no one believes a word anyone in the public sector says any more. 

This unnecessarily lost trust, a lack of credibility and the daily ridicule to which the Tech City project is now subjected, perhaps explain why its mastermind’s accomplishments after government have been so bitterly unprepossessing. But the greatest mystery is how Rohan Silva reduced an entire industry to giggling, infatuated schoolgirls–attracting the sort of praise normally reserved for religious deities–while achieving vanishingly little for businesses suffocated by over-regulation and tax. 

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