A high-technology fantasy

Britain only pretends to be venture friendly, says David Brierley
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The Independent Online
These seem like balmy days for British enterprise. Last week, Chiroscience and Celltech, leaders in the bio-tech industry, merged to create a pounds 1bn company. John Jackson, chairman of Chiroscience, says: "We've created the largest biopharmaceutical company in Europe, in the same league as the large US companies. This should encourage other entrepreneurs."

The Government would certainly like to think so. Tony Blair may even cite the merger as proof of the push by UK plc toward hi-tech pre-eminence when he addresses the Entrepreneurs' Summit, a venture- capital bash, next week.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been pushing the hi- tech sector since New Labour came to power two years ago. He continues to unveil tax breaks to encourage entrepreneurs. Indeed, government and industry speak with one voice on the subject: new companies funded by British venture capital invest heavily, grow rapidly, export more and employ more people than their established peers.

"Venture-backed companies provide a massive impetus to the economic performance and competitiveness of the UK," says Clive Sherling, British Venture Capital Association chairman.

In 1997, British funds invested pounds 4.9bn in 1,200 UK companies - half of European venture capital investment.

But the rhetoric outstrips reality. The merger between Celltech and Chiroscience proves the weakness, not strength, of Britain's hi-tech industry: if any small UK hi-tech companies should have made it on their own, it was them. But they had to merge to achieve critical mass in their research and development budget.

The merger of Celltech and Chiroscience, while creating a much stronger company, illustrates the difficulties of the hi-tech entrepreneur. To the investor, small is not necessarily beautiful, because small also means high risk. Even for a relatively safe bet such as Chiroscience, capital has been in short supply, forcing it to seek partners for new drugs, reducing potential profits.

Everyone agrees that more money, more entrepreneurs and more start-ups are needed in Britain, but that, at the same time, backing this rhetoric involves serious risk.

"Technology funds still struggle to raise money from institutional investors. We need more money, management teams and technologists," says Friends, Ivory and Sime fund manager David Thorp.

Indeed, a wave of consolidation is starting to sweep the biotech sector. But even this may not be enough. Many analysts want a single European exchange with the credibility of America's technology-specialist stock market, Nasdaq. Without this, European venture capital backing for hi- tech start-ups will remain small, they say. In 1998, such investment amounted to pounds 336m in the UK, against pounds 6.3bn in the US.

The conservatism of British pension funds does not help. They commit less than 1 per cent of their funds to venture capital. US pension funds, less restricted in their range of investments, commit a multiple of this figure. Amazingly, American pension funds are the main investors in the UK venture capital industry. A simple change to UK pension fund rules, like the one enacted in the US in the 1980s, would be one way to boost the British entrepreneur.

The Japanese trade and industry department, MITI, has noted that Britain was responsible for 40 per cent of the world's commercially important innovations. But Britain hasn't turned this creativity into profits. "In the UK, we have to take seriously the extent to which we are falling behind in the commercialisation of new technology. More entrepreneurial scientists should leave universities and have a go," says Mr Jackson.

To move successfully from lab to marketplace, Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor who specialises in competitiveness believes a "common innovation infrastructure" is needed - in effect a wish-list of all venture capitalists: clusters of companies backed by generously funded research, favourable taxes, available risk capital, high general educational standards, good communications, open markets and strong patent protection.

While there are encouraging signs of progress around Cambridge and Oxford, the overall picture in Britain is still patchy at best. A DTI-funded survey of the world's top 300 firms revealed that their average investment in R&D was 4.6 per cent of sales. The top British businesses spent just 2.5 per cent.

To widen their technology and research expertise, many large US hi-tech companies are investing in start-ups in a process called "corporate venturing". Intel has invested $2.5bn in this way.

Corporate venturing is taking root in Britain, too. SmithKline Beecham, Glaxo Wellcome and AstraZeneca are all considering buying into the UK's start-up biotech companies.

Yet there is a danger that all the hype about innovation will obscure the reality: though UK plc is out of the starting blocks in the race to win a place in the global hi-tech world, a strong finish is anything but certain.