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Startups need ambition to help British manufacturing grow

Britain is bursting with exciting new technologies. Forty of them, from liquid air-powered engines to fuel made from CO2, were on display at the IMechE this week at the Cleantech Innovate showcase. And all the companies involved were making valiant efforts to overcome that great British problem of turning good ideas into profitable ventures.

The idea that Britain needs to rebalance its economy by growing its manufacturing export sector in order to create wealth and good jobs, has been drummed into us on a daily basis for over four years now. We need more entrepreneurs, we’re told, more investment in startup firms and more government help for new businesses.

All sensible ideas for tackling a genuine problem. However, if this week’s showcase is anything to go by, many technology startups are still struggling to attract the investment they need.

Everyone at the event had their own ideas as to why this is the case: investors and banks are too risk-averse, both since the financial crisis and in British culture in general; there’s a lack of technical expertise among investors and a lack of financial expertise among engineers; there’s too much bureaucracy in government schemes and too few tax incentives to invest in small businesses. One delegate even blamed a lack of ambition on the part of some startup firms to ask for the money they really needed to substantially build their businesses.

But even if the firms at Cleantech Innovate can access the money they need, this wouldn’t necessarily equal the new boom in British manufacturing output and jobs we’re hoping for. Many of the companies’ business plans involved licensing their technology, outsourcing manufacturing to foreign firms, or seeking a corporate buyout rather than building themselves into a big manufacturer.

You can’t necessarily blame companies for taking the non-UK manufacturing route. The nature of their technology and intended markets will help define the best way for them to commercialise and for some products it just wouldn’t make sense to build them here. Talk to ARM, whose chips are in mobile devices all over the world but doesn’t make any itself, or Dyson, a great British engineering success story that shipped its production abroad over ten years ago, and I’m sure they’d give you multiple reasons why these were the right decisions for them.

But there was something rather inspiring about the determination of one company at Cleantech Innovate, Libralato Engines, whose CEO made an explicit point of his desire to bring green manufacturing jobs to deprived parts of the country, and is presumably hoping some investors will respond to this emotional pull.

Other firms told me they would like to manufacture in the UK and plan to start by doing so but that it probably wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term. For many technology firms, Britain has the expertise and the supply chain to develop and build complex products in their early stages but high-volume costs, access to raw materials and the hassle of exporting can make it less attractive as the company expands.

But it often comes back to the issue of funding. Turning a small company into a big one can require huge amounts of capital, which banks just aren’t willing to offer at the moment. We’ve heard time and again that the government is leaning on the banks to get them lending but where’s the proof that it’s working?

I’m also increasingly inclined to believe that Britain is disadvantaged by its lack of a major multinational consumer/industrial technology player to compete with the likes of Siemens, Samsung and GE. If the banks won’t give you the money to expand then why not go to a company who can give you instant access to global reach? Unfortunately this will almost always mean ending up in foreign ownership.

If we want to see Britain increase manufacturing output and jobs on a large scale, and hold onto the wealth created by maintaining domestic ownership, we need to do more than just encourage startups. We need to make sure companies have the ambition and the ability to stay British and that our financial services sector is there to support them, not just make money for itself.

Readers' comments (20)

  • The issue for technology start-ups in the UK is one of supply chain and end customer.

    There is little point in manufacturing in the UK if the end product is consumed in Asia.

    Sadly, the UK has lost the ability to roll out big new technologies so we rely on buy-in from US and Asian business, and they want to move it/control it on home territory.

    If we are going to fix this it will take a considerable political effort and a new mindset from UK banks that remain completely clueless about technology

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  • Cut the red tape, get out of Europe, close down that quango organisation the HSE, drop the crippling tax burdon on businesses and then, just then we might stand a chance, too bigger ask hey!!!!

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  • 'entrepeneur' for me means someone who buys stuff from overseas and flogs it here. What we need is not 'entrepeneurs' but 'industrialists' who are prepared to imagine-design-fund-market on these shores and in no small way stop cash leaking from the country. Or is it a pipe dream?

    Otherwise, excellent article.

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  • That's the Apprentice TV show definition of 'entrepreneur', perhaps.

  • Although our startup company has produced the first real-time 3D software that allows real-time data input and direct output to glasses-free 3D displays, we have been unable to find any funding or other support. We´ve had some limited press coverage, but making sales but without more resources is very difficult. The market for a 3D "PowerPoint" is massive, as it is for real-time 3D for advertising, educational presentations and more, but organisations like the British Strategy Board are just unequipped to provide any really effective assistance, forcing us to look the the States.

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  • We are a UK business flying the Union Jack but finding UK suppliers and fabricators is a major problem. We design new innovative structures for land and offshore applications and our sister company Xanthus Energy is 100% focused on lowering the cost of offshore wind energy using innovation that is based on local content and local skills. But getting any support from government is worse that pulling teeth in our experience! It is all up hill to get any support yet we are the companies trying to build the local economy.

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  • I agree wholeheartedly that these new technologies are exciting, particularly for those employed in them, and potentially will help the economy,but are they likely provide the money needed to sustain the Welfare State and all the other bits and pieces we value so highly? It is very unlikely. Successive British Governments ,the Banks and British Industry itself have failed since 1945 to provide any leadership. Historically the writing has been on the wall for the last 100 years . Don't take my word for it read Sampson or Barnett.

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  • As a high-technology start-up, we have been battlling for 11 years to secure the funding to bring our technology to market and lead the world in very-low altitude RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aerial System] BVLOS [Beyond Visual Line Of Sight] inspection and surveillance solutions.
    The Technology Strategy Board has made significant progress in developing programmes that support innovation and they should be congratulated, but it is essential that politicians and other leaders in our society (particularly bankers) get away from the idea that collaboration is key to successful innovation - it can often be a killer.
    Innovation and successful start-up businesses come about through the efforts and aspirations of individuals - back these people and you have the best chance of success. Implement too much administration and structure across the board and bring in corporate managers to support this process and any understanding of risk and the ability and knowledge to be able to effectively mitigate risk and hence economic success through SME businesses is lost.

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  • 'That's the Apprentice TV show definition of 'entrepreneur', perhaps.'

    It's the definition that Her Madge's govt. seems most keen on pushing......

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  • That or someone who makes mobile phone apps.

  • I would like to see the following:-
    1. People's investment bank. With such brilliant innovation waiting in the wings to be designed, engineered and made in Britain people will soon be flocking to put their money in.
    2. Company groupings of complimentary technologies such as the Midland Assembly Network giving strength in numbers but not stifling innovation by big company takeovers.
    3. Employee ownership. Encourages an all for one/one for all attitude going forward, and importantly prevents future foreign takeovers/buyouts. Grow big together.
    In combination the above can build in stability, recreate a domestic supply chain and give a clear path for successor generations to follow. The economic and rebalancing potential is endless!

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  • What we need is unobtainable at present. Available labour at a competitive price to the far east and eastern europe; ie about £2 - £4 per hour,or as an antidote to complete free world trade a rigid import duty on incoming goods as in the old days and still employed by many countries.

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