The Tech Track 100 offers a fascinating annual snapshot of this country’s vibrant technology industry. But a quick look over the ranking since it was first published at the height of the dotcom bubble in 2001 gives us an insight into how Britain’s tech sector has changed.

“The term ‘tech company’ is a catch-all term,” says Titus Sharpe, CEO of MVF Global, a digital marketing agency that came top of the 2013 Tech Track 100. “It can mean any business that puts technology and innovation at its core.”

Tech Track celebrates innovation, featuring firms that have developed or applied new technology to change the way in which their chosen industry operates. For example, this year’s list includes hi-tech manufacturing firms such as Cobalt Light Systems, whose scanners can detect liquid explosives, EV, which designs video camera systems for gas and oil exploration, and Chargemaster, which designs and supplies charging points for electric cars.

Market disrupters

Other firms in this year’s ranking are using technology to disrupt their markets. The number-one firm in this year’s list, LMAX Exchange, is an online currency-trading platform, whose clients range from major banks to fund managers, brokers and day traders. Other financing firms that also feature in the list include vehicle-financing firm Car Loan 4 U and peer-to-peer lender Zopa are similar.

Companies that have previously featured on the ranking – including online grocer Ocado, the fashion and beauty e-tailer The Hut Group, Lovefilm and Just Eat, the takeaway food ordering service – have moved out of the technology space into the mainstream, having used their online business models to carve out a niche for themselves alongside more traditional competitors in their chosen markets.

Should we even consider these to be tech firms? For MVF’s Sharpe a “true digital business puts digital marketing, software engineering and data analysis at its core. If a traditional business does a bit of digital marketing but doesn’t optimise its processes through software engineering, then I would say it is not a digital business.”

The rise and rise of consumer-facing technology

One of the most notable trends in the evolution of Tech Track since 2001 is that whereas companies offering tech solutions to business customers dominated earlier rankings, today’s lists feature many firms that interact directly with consumers. That’s not surprising considering the UK’s transformation into a nation of online shoppers.

The rise of smartphones has created a marketing revolution, in which marketers understand people’s buying habits and interests, enabling retailers and manufacturers to interact directly with consumers via their mobile devices.

“Digital media companies are a component of the technology industry,” says MVF’s Sharpe. Firms in this sector make up almost a fifth of this year’s list, including Mobilewebadz, Somo, Potato and Crimtan.

The risks have grown

But the net has a growing dark side, seen in the string of recent high-profile cyber attacks on major firms such as eBay that I’ve written about in the past. Online security firms have featured prominently in past Tech Track 100s, including Sophos, Kaspersky and MessageLabs. This year’s ranking includes Hide My Ass! which encrypts the identity, location and activity of subscriber web users.

Today’s tech firms face growing risks other than from the threat of hackers. Many of the firms on this year’s list combine consultancy services with innovative programs and apps, advising clients on their strategy through analysis of customers’ behaviour.

Innovative, yes, but this too opens firms up to new types of claims, both from unhappy clients if they don’t deliver what’s expected or if their advice backfires, or if there’s a glitch with their custom-made software.

Many of the Tech Track firms trade internationally, because their businesses are based on software or online platforms which can be easily replicated in other markets. But they can easily fall foul of a complicated patchwork of foreign laws on data security.

What of the future?

What can the Tech Track tell us about the shape of tomorrow’s tech sector? Its ‘Ones to Watch’ list includes two firms focused on the health sector: Elucigene Diganostics, a genetics testing technology firm, and TrialReach, which has developed an online platform for clinical trials.

Hi-tech manufacturer M Squared Lasers is featured, along with online marketing agencies, games and software developers, as well as a couple of companies that help firms to sharpen their customer-relations performance.

They are a vivid illustration of the breadth and depth of this country’s tech industry, as well as proof that if you have a good idea it’s possible to grow rapidly, no matter what the state is of the general economy.

For video interviews with leading Tech Track 100 companies and further analysis, click here.