Can Rishi Sunak’s science superpower dreams become reality?
Rishi Sunak rolled out plans to “cement the UK as a tech and science superpower by 2030” today with promises to tempt in the best global tech talent and deliver a state-backed £370m investment boost.
The new “framework” marks the first major outing for the newly minted department for Science, Innovation and Technology, which ministers claim will “challenge every part of government to better put the UK at the forefront of global science and technology”.
But the plans come fresh on the back of a series of blows to the UK’s wider tech ecosystem.
Questions still hang over UK access to the EU’s £84.77bn (€95.5bn) Horizon science funding programme, chipmaker Arm has just ditched London IPO plans for New York, and feted quango Tech Nation is closing its doors after ministers pulled its funding, leaving the future of its visa programme in doubt.
While Sunak’s tech and science superpower dreams sound bold, City A.M. has spoken with chiefs from across the industry to hear whether they think they can become reality.
‘Vital that rhetoric is paired with a plan’
The former boss of FTSE-100 software group Sage and chair of Tech Nation, Stephen Kelly, tells City A.M. that rosy rhetoric needs a firmer action plan to back it up.
“[The Government] hopes to take on Silicon Valley, and to become the most innovative country in the world. But for the first time in decades, other G20 countries are raising their game and macroeconomic trends threaten Britain’s tech momentum,” Kelly tells City A.M.
“It is vital that Government rhetoric is now paired with a coherent plan with policies and support mechanisms to match.
“More is needed to set a clear vision with details addressing ‘the How?’ for the next decade of tech scaleup growth and success, where the UK can race away from European countries even further and truly compete with Silicon Valley’s finest.”
‘Financial support will be crucial’
Industry body TechUK says that while the plans mark a “welcome step” towards maintaining the UK’s position as a leader in science and tech, it’s ultimately cash that will determine their success.
“The framework will define a role for the UK in critical technologies such as quantum, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors, as well as tackling cross-industry issues such as skills, investment and infrastructure,” deputy chief executive Anthony Walker tells City A.M..
“However, financial support for these ambitions will be crucial. Against this framework, the upcoming Spring Budget will be a critical moment for the future of UK tech and innovation.”
Walker says funding has to be underpinned by a “cohesive innovation agenda”, the much-awaited strategy for the semiconductor industry, the AI White Paper, and a “pro-innovation regulatory environment.”
‘Cohesion still needed’
While any support from government is “welcome”, Sarah Barber, boss of Jenson Funding Partners tells City A.M. that government’s tech ambitions still lack a coherent strategy.
“Extra support for universities will enable them to focus more on research without feeling the need to capitalise on the investment side,” she says.
“But there is a clear need for more cohesion around tech and investment schemes, tax reliefs, and talent objectives moving forward.”
‘Not a game changer’
Venture capital investment into the UK’s innovation sectors has dipped in the past 12 months as growth investors grapple with rocky economic conditions. Speaking with City A.M. Yaron Valler, founding partner of venture capital firm Target Global, reckons the government’s new plans are destined to fall well short unless UK investors are on board and willing to throw their weight behind the plans.
“The truth is elaborate plans are often nothing without private sector buy-in. If anything, this is merely the starting gun that the government hopes will ignite interest from the wider, global science and innovation community,” he said.
“To have truly game-changing results, you need a much more concerted effort in comprehensive reforms and accountability. Alone it will not be a game changer and against Germany’s €1bn commitment for growth-stage investment into deeptech and climate tech and France’s €500m fund for deeptech startups, the UK’s announcement may not generate the same level of inward investment.”
Drop in the ocean?
A dearth of funding means the UK has often struggled to fuel the commercial success of some of its most promising university spin outs.
Ben Clark, director of Future Worlds, the on-campus startup accelerator at the University of Southampton, says that the cash backing in the new plans does not go far enough to drive the commerciality of University innovation.
“It’s great to see a further step that underlines the Government’s ambition in this area. However, everyone knows that in this context, £370m is a drop in the ocean, so we need to ensure it’s part of a much bigger push,” he told City A.M.
“One elephant in the room is European Horizon funding – will the Government ensure we remain associated with it to gain access to the funding, and if not, then what is their alternative?”