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As Neil Woodford criticises its attitude to funding startups, is the UK capable of producing the first trillion-dollar company?

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Our obsession with unicorns and companies 1,000 times the size forgets 99 per cent of the firms powering our economy (Source: Getty)

Luke Hakes, investment director at Octopus Ventures, says Yes.

You have to believe the UK is capable of building the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Historically, the UK ecosystem lacked the weight of capital required to take startups to the next level, especially when compared to Silicon Valley. But that’s been changing and the UK has made dramatic progress in the last 10 years – with no signs of slowing down. We do have to accept that some great businesses will be acquired along the way – that’s how the ecosystem works, and that’s how confidence in the market grows. We’re already seeing founders hold on to their businesses that little bit longer and that’s a trend that I have no doubt will continue. Those who do decide to sell frequently use the proceeds to create new businesses or support young entrepreneurs. None of these are bad things, and ultimately offer the startup network a huge breadth of experience. The UK has both world-class talent and technology and, as long as we encourage the ecosystem to thrive, there is every chance that trillion-dollar business will be ours.

Alex Wood, founder and editor of The Memo and a visiting lecturer at City University, says No.

Size doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it that counts. Ambition is unquestionably a good thing, but we’re a long way off creating a “trillion-dollar business”. To put it in context, Apple took 40 years to build a company worth $615bn. Many of Britain’s so-called unicorns are drowning in debt and barely turning a profit. Spotted startups advertising on the tube lately? They’re spending more on marketing than staff, desperately buying customers to justify valuations. We’ve become obsessed by billion-dollar businesses. The unicorn path is one way to a build a company, but it’s not the only way. Our economy isn’t dominated by corporate giants in glass skyscrapers – these are, in fact, the 1 per cent. We’re a country of small businesses, generating over £1 trillion in real revenues every year. Why not offer more support to the 99 per cent instead? Nobody wants to hold back progress. But right now trillion-dollar companies are as fictional as unicorns, so let’s stop chasing them.

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