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Greater support for tech enterprises needed in the UK

A last-minute bid for start-up manufacturer Britishvolt has failed, resulting in a collapse into administration (Britishvolt collapses into administration as rescue talks fail, FT, January 17 2023). Associate Professor of Management Practice in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, John Mullins, believes the travails of the start-up manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries are perhaps an echo of another brave British attempt to innovate the ill-fated Hillman Imp motor car of the 1960s and 70s. Under-capitalised and unable to survive industrial relations problems, the Rootes Group failed despite the initial promise of the innovative Imp, seen as a rival to the Mini at the time.

And now, in 2023, a mystery British consortium has failed in its attempt to salvage an attempt to create home-grown battery manufacturing in the UK.

The silent scream in this narrative is that the UK is not always known for its alchemical ability to blend private investment and government support with the incubation and manufacture of new technologies. The US is the best-known leader in respect of their support for innovative businesses, combining as it does the Build to Scale (B2S) program from The Economic Development Administration (EDA), with the financial capabilities of Wall Street and the concentrated power of Silicon Valley.

This model has spawned a raft of imitators the world over and while the UK is no slouch in terms of start-up accelerator programs – Bethnal Green Ventures and Techstars London Accelerator come to mind in this respect – the years of austerity and the UK government’s restrained approach to R&D funding has not produced the best environment for R&D.

The country’s expenditure on research and development (R&D) rose by £1.3 billion (3.4%) to £38.5 billion in 2019, the lowest percentage growth since 2013 according to the Office for National Statistics. At 1.74%, the UK’s gross domestic expenditure on R&D remains well below the 2019 OECD average of 2.5%, although one should note the present ambition to increase total R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

With the recent failure of Britishvolt in mind, and the promise of a ballooning tech revolution in the world’s transport systems, from electric cars to UAVs, to self-driving vehicles, growing publicly funded research and in particular further research and development tax support for small companies (UK government admits R&D-heavy small companies need more tax help, FTJanuary 13, 2023) must be at the forefront of this government’s ambitions in the year ahead.

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