Plans for £20m tech fund to turn Jersey into a digital testbed

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A PROPOSED £20 million government fund designed to help firms take advantage of digital solutions to become more efficient and productive will see Island organisations becoming ‘early adopters’ of tech, according to the head of Digital Jersey.

Tony Moretta said that the ‘technology accelerator fund’ would, if given States approval, encourage businesses to operate in Jersey and provide a platform for the Island to become a digital testbed.

This week the Council of Ministers lodged a proposition to launch the new fund, which would be backed by £20 million generated by JT’s sale of its internet-of-things division last year, to boost the Island’s ‘digital ecosystem’.

The project will be spearheaded by Digital Jersey, which will design the programme.

Mr Moretta said: ‘If you look at house-building technologies, for example, we’re quite far behind. With agriculture, if you can invest in automation you could reduce the need for inputs such as fertiliser or water, and get more yield, but lower inputs.

‘We have components in Jersey like the States-owned enterprises that have created things like JT’s “internet of things”, we have great infrastructure, we’ve got Digital Jersey, but we need the funding to unlock projects. This fund will oil the wheels for anybody who comes to us with these sorts of projects.’

He added that a good example of where Jersey had lacked funding for a technology project was the failure last year of the AirSensa initiative designed to detect air pollution levels around the Island.

‘AirSensa was great and it would have worked if we’d had the money. We introduced the chief executive to the director-general of infrastructure, explained the project and he said it was perfect,’ Mr Moretta said.

‘But then the department said that they didn’t have the budget because we were going into Covid-19. We could have gotten external contractors to do it instead, but we didn’t have the resources.

‘So for the sake of not having funding of maybe £60,000 to pay for that, we ended up losing a great project.’

Mr Moretta also said that the fund would operate in a different way to the ill-fated Jersey Innovation Fund.

The former JIF, which loaned £2.1 million of taxpayers’ money to start-up businesses, was shut down in 2017 after one of the beneficiaries, computer software firm Logfiller, went into liquidation owing the government £400,000 plus large sums of interest.

Several reports into the management of the JIF in the wake of the Logfiller failure were carried out and the fallout led to severe criticism being levelled at the Council of Ministers for the lack of oversight of the project.

Mr Moretta said the new fund would have a broader scope than the JIF and look to provide money to improve the Island’s take-up of technology across the economy, rather than just for start-up businesses.

‘The innovation fund was introduced at a time when there was a perceived lack of liquidity for start-ups,’ he said.

‘Nowadays, if you’ve got a good idea you can raise money locally – there’s investors like Faction – or you can take advantage of off-Island crowd funding, like Tidal Rum and Jersey Hemp did with Seedrs.

‘What we’re setting up the fund for is to see how can we fund projects which will accelerate progress using technology, whether it’s an economic, social or environmental target.’

He added: ‘We’ll do some of the stuff at the start of the innovation curve [with start-ups/innovators] but really this is about how do we shift Jersey, as an Island, especially the public sector objectives, from being late adopters of technology to early adopters.’

Digital entrepreneur Dave Edwards, a partner in the Faction investment team, said that making the right investments using the fund’s resources was key for Digital Jersey and that attracting high-quality businesses to the Island should be a goal.

‘I think they will need to look beyond Jersey internally, and should look to bring in international founders and businesses who can bring much-needed skills and expertise to the Island,’ he said.

‘What we don’t want to see is, like with the innovation fund, that people come looking for investment because they can’t get it anywhere else. I’m reticent to say that innovation fund was a car crash, because a couple of the businesses did quite well, they got most of the money back and the motives behind it were right.

‘But the problem was its terms of reference, where investors were given loans without much oversight and no equity was taken in the companies, so the real upside of investment was lost.’

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