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Venture Capital: Make the UK a home for enterprise

ENTREPRENEURS are perhaps the main agents of change in our business life. So it is worthwhile considering how we might increase the supply and quality of them.

The UK already produces a stream of outstanding entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial managers - people with the capacity to create businesses of significant scale and supply first-rate products and services, which customers love and which produce spectacular returns for their investors.

Names that spring to mind include James Dyson, whose vacuum cleaner has won the hearts and wallets of households across the UK; David Porter, founder of Psion, whose organiser is now as common as the Corporate Amex card; and Dennis Gittings, a scientist who founded and built Quintiles into an internationally successful clinical research organisation, with a market value of $3.3bn (pounds 2bn). Interestingly, Mr Gittings started Quintiles in North Carolina, where he had a research post with an American university.

So what can be done? I start with the observation that Rome was not built in a day. This implies that a long-term view is needed if policies are to work. Long term, in my book, means lasting at least two terms of office for the Government.

The UK is already endowed with many of the ingredients necessary for stimulating entrepreneurs. For example, it has a highly developed and competitive financial system, centres of excellence in tertiary education, and - compared with the EU - relatively open markets and a population that is now prepared to take more risks.

We are already part of a large market, which will over time open up and begin to mirror the barrier-free American market. This market will excite entrepreneurs and overdue deregulation will stimulate a burst of activity to exceed our expectations.

But creating the best environment for entrepreneurs incurs costs, such as a larger education budget and a lower short-term tax take. Other costs may come as a surprise. For example, while de-regulating markets produces more competition and better value for money, it is sometimes at the cost of unemployment.

It seems equally important to me that we adopt a commitment to position the UK as the European home for entrepreneurial activity.

This would allow us to capitalise on our big strengths in financial services, certain technologies and creative industries. The important point is that our industrial, fiscal and social policies are consistent with this position.

Successful entrepreneurs build businesses around people; the most common limiting factor to growth is access to high quality people. Many of the new industries require people who possess technical qualifications.

The UK faces yet another skills shortage now in IT as well as engineering and science. Perhaps it is time to allocate resources more ruthlessly to faculties that produce graduates who are in short supply.

Also we might consider ways of attracting overseas talent by understanding what their location criteria are and providing an environment that satisfies their needs. The US, and California in particular, is an excellent example of a working "talent magnet". Whether by accident or design, UK business and our pool of entrepreneurs have benefited greatly from immigration.

Recycling wealth has a role to play in building up our base of intellectual capital, an important component of entrepreneurial activity. It is clear that significant amounts of personal wealth have been created over the past 20 years. Perhaps more could be done to encourage the owners of this wealth to recycle some of their gains by charitable donations to universities (improving facilities, tutoring) and to scientific foundations.

At the same time, we might encourage more of these bodies to follow the lead of the University College London Medical Research Council and the Imperial Cancer Research Foundation to commercialise more of their research output.

The recently announced University Challenge initiative, a venture that combines the Wellcome Foundation and the Government and offers venture capital to academics wishing to commercialise the output of their departments is, I hope, a sign of things to come.

Ian Armitage is managing director of the private equity division, of Mercury Asset Management. An earlier article on the state of the entrepreneur appeared on 23 August.