Recent coverage on the BBC has focused on UK technology companies, and has posed the question of whether the UK can compete in the global technology industry. One only has to think of Google and Facebook to realise how far behind the US we are in the UK. Where are the UK’s world leading technology giants, and what more must we do to support them?
A number of tech entrepreneurs as well as investment specialist have offered their views on what they believe the problem is. Not surprisingly, the common theme amongst them is the struggle that businesses face for funding. However, and perhaps surprisingly, the problem doesn’t lie with seed and start-up capital. In the UK we are actually very good at nurturing small businesses, and the government and organisations such as the NHS have worked hard to support innovation and university spin outs, particularly in the sectors that the UK is strongest in, including life science, healthcare and technology.
Instead, the problem is later in the life cycle of these businesses, when they move on to commercialising the product or service that they have built. They need to scale up to meet the demand that they have created, as well as having the fire-power to break into new markets. Neil Woodford, who set up his Patient Capital fund to invest in UK venture was quoted by the BBC this week responding to a question about scale up capital:
"We have been appallingly bad at giving those minnows the long-term capital they need"
Why then do they struggle to attract investment? The answer is quite simply because the UK’s fund management industry has no place for venture in its portfolios. A thriving, high growth technology company is considered far too risky. As long as this attitude holds sway, the evolution of the UK tech sector will be impeded.
We have observed this over the last 10 years, as we have watched a gap open up between the early seed and start up rounds and the later Series A or first institutional investment round. Where not so long ago a Series A might have closed within 3-4 years of seed funding, it is now more likely to be 5-7 years afterwards, if that soon. It is precisely at this stage, what we have termed the “bridge to Series A stage”, that Juno focuses its investment activity. The businesses we are working with are not struggling, far from it. These companies are selected by us for (a) generating more than £1m of annual recurring revenue and (b) growing at unprecedented rates, often with revenue growth in excess of 100%, year on year.
Working with Swansea University’s School of Management, Juno has been involved in research to understand why the gatekeepers to the UK’s personal wealth are not supporting venture as effectively as they might. It is a serious problem and our research has left us in little doubt that until the investment industry, specifically IFAs and fund managers, consider an allocation to later stage commercialisation, or scale up stage venture in their portfolios, the UK venture industry will continue to struggle for funding to support growth to any significant scale.
The UK government’s EIS regime has, to a meaningful degree, facilitated the evolution of a world-leading entrepreneurial sector at the start up stage by off-setting an element of the perceived risk against tax relief. Similar policy making focused on the scale up stage is now required to support the development of that sector to maturity. If the fiscal and regulatory incentives are in place for investors, there seems little doubt that British innovation will be well-placed to compete on the global stage and perhaps then we will see our own Google, Facebook or Uber.
Dr Julian Hickman
Juno Capital LLP