Could the next Apple or Facebook be from Britain?

Could the next Apple or Facebook be from Britain?

Britain is home to a handful of world-beating tech innovators. We look at how professional investors identify tomorrow's successes – and how you can do the same.  By The Telegraph's Richard Evans.

Everyone is familiar with the spectacular success of America’s technology giants – many of us use products made by Apple or Microsoft and use Google, Facebook and Amazon every day.

But did you know that Britain has its fair share of hi-tech success stories?

Inside every Apple iPhone, for example, is a chip designed by a British company, Arm Holdings, while the Californian giant’s laptops owe their sleek outlines to an engineering firm based in Gloucestershire.

And UK-based Autonomy, which makes clever software for searching “unstructured” information, was snapped up by America's Hewlett-Packard in 2011 ago for £6bn.

“British technology companies are often global leaders in their fields but not household names,” said Richard Wilmot, manager of Newton Higher Income fund. “Consumers recognise mobile phone brands such as Samsung and Nokia but do not know that a chip designed by Cambridge based Arm is in nearly every device.

 “Renishaw, the Gloucestershire-based engineers, provided the know-how to allow Apple to upgrade from plastic moulded laptops to the sleek bevel edged designs we now enjoy – again, this is not widely known.”

He said the UK’s technical innovation was “often niche and under the radar of public awareness” but made “a critical contribution to advances in consumer experience and to the British economy”.

Arm is easily Britain’s biggest technology company; it is valued by the stock market at £11.3bn. It was founded in 1990 and has been at the heart of the so-called “Silicon Fen” cluster of technology businesses around Cambridge. It now employs 2,300 people and its 2013 turnover is forecast to hit $1bn (£650m).

It stands out from rivals such as America’s Intel by avoiding manufacturing to concentrate purely on the design of silicon chips. Customers pay a fee to use its designs in their phones, computers and so on.

Its key skill is designing chips with low power consumption. This doesn’t just mean that our phones can stay charged for longer – it could lead to whole new areas of technology.

“We are starting to see electronic sensors that need so little power that it can be supplied by radio waves rather than fixed wires,” said Tom Slater, who co-manages the Scottish Mortgage investment trust, a long-term investor in technology companies. “The could lead to novel devices such as 'digestible sensors’ – tiny gadgets that a patient swallows and that then diagnoses his or her internal body chemistry.”

Mr Slater said Arm’s “design-only” approach avoided the need for large amounts of capital. “This efficient business model has enabled it to stay ahead of well funded competitors such as Intel,” he added.

Other British chip designers include Wolfson Microelectronics, who largest customer is Samsung, and CSR, which last year sold its Bluetooth handsets division to the same Korean firm for £200m.

This country is also home to Sage, the Newcastle-based accountancy software group that is valued by the stock market at almost £4bn. This is a more mature business, which generates plenty of cash but is struggling to grow. Analysts at Panmure Gordon, the stockbroker, said it was a potential victim of “the shifting tectonic plates” in the business software market and was “in the slow lane” as far as growth was concerned.

Telecity, whose “data centres” host websites and other stored data for companies, is valued at £2bn.

Impressive as some of Britain’s technology firms are, they have nothing like the scale of their American counterparts. Whereas 1.3pc of the FTSE All Share index consists of tech firms, they account for almost 18pc of America’s S&P 500 and form the largest sector in the index.

Some of the individual companies are also huge. Apple’s stock market value is $393bn (£257bn) while Google is valued at $293bn (£191bn).

Many of these giant corporations began life as tiny start-ups in Silicon Valley near San Francisco. The area has a unique status as an incubator for technology companies. Mr Slater recently spent two months there trying to get to the bottom of the reasons for its success – and to try to identify some of the Googles and Amazons of tomorrow.

“The ability of Silicon Valley to transform itself and attract the talent to power that adaptation may be its defining point of difference,” he said.

“By being there you also find yourself surrounded by people who are entrepreneurial – they’ve been attracted by the same factors – and a culture has developed that isn’t afraid to fail; indeed failure has become a badge of honour. All the resources, such as expertise, employees, are on tap that you might need to make your business a success. ”

He added: “We believe strongly that companies with the ability to disrupt existing markets have good prospects – I saw this in Silicon Valley but you also see it in Chinese companies.”

Two shares that the Mr Slater’s fund bought after his visit to Silicon Valley were Workday and LinkedIn.

Workday was founded in 2005 by former managers of PeopleSoft, the software company bought by Oracle in the same year.

Mr Slater said: “We were looking for companies able to benefit from the move to 'cloud computing’ [when programs and data are stored online]. It is the first company to try to transfer core company functions such as accounting and human resources to the cloud; previously, only peripheral activities were put in the cloud. But Workday has been very successful on the HR side, signing up big customers such as HP.

“If they can repeat that success with accounting software we will make a lot of money from this company. It has the market to itself and the founder-managers have big stakes.”

He said he was attracted to Linkedin by its disruptive approach to recruitment and sales. “Its 200 million white collar members are incredibly attractive to advertisers.

“We also hold Facebook. The thing that continues to surprise is its size – 1.2 billion people visit regularly and spend a lot of time on the site; this is a massively engaged audience. The advertising industry is going through the process of working out how to use it.” Mr Slated added that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, was “very vigilant” about ensuring that advertising did not compromise users’ experience – “and he could be there for the next 30 years”.

“Facebook is the communications system of the 21st century but we don’t expect it to be a cash machine for a few years yet. You need to invest for the long term.”

This article was originally featured on

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

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