James Ashton: Size matters, so Britain must grow big businesses to feed our economy

James Ashton@mrjamesashton
Saturday 06 April 2013 01:15

A confluence of events reminded me of the real challenge Britain faces to reboot itself as a nation of entrepreneurs. I emerged on Wednesday from a persuasive briefing with Santander's boss Ana Botin on her campaign to recruit more small-business customers to read an email reporting that a little-known company called Ubiquisys had been sold.

Ubiquisys had it all: a sexy femtocell technology that boosts mobile-phone reception and starry backers including Google, T-Mobile and venture capitalists Accel. What Ubiquisys had, Cisco wanted, which is why the company was scooped up for £200m.

John Chambers' love of investing in Britain was underlined when the Cisco chief joined David Cameron on stage for the Government's pre-Olympics investment conference. Only a few months prior, the networking-equipment giant splashed more cash on NDS, a pay-TV encryption firm based in Staines.

It is always a tribute to British brainpower when buyers come knocking at the door. Ubiquisys was one of three experts in femtocells, for years an area where Britain led that was tipped for explosive growth as phone networks tried to squeeze more usage out of their kit. Of the other two, Picochip has already been sold and it can't be long before ip.access goes the same way.

These are the sort of businesses Ms Botin is eyeing for her £200m Breakthrough fund from which she hopes to build a business-banking franchise. High growth, with an eye on foreign markets, which Santander can help expand without founders having to sell their shirts.

It is a two-way street, though. The Bank of England's report this week showed that although the availability of credit for small firms fell, so too did the demand for credit. Entrepreneurs need to have the desire to expand and export, and not just because some banks are offering to help them.

But for all the focus on nurturing small and growing businesses in Britain, somehow we must be able to grow tomorrow's big companies here to feed our economy – instead of simply acting as a feeder for someone else.

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