Business

James Anderson: Scotland must learn to be bold and ambitious in industry again

I HAVE been fortunate enough to see at first hand the astounding progress of many of the technologies and companies underpinning the modern and future economies of the world. We’ve been Tesla’s largest external shareholder and owners of Alibaba before it was a public company. So we know what is possible.

It’s incredibly frustrating to me that in Scotland and in Britain that although we have adopted and adapted many of the technologies with impressive success that we are confined to execution not invention with serious consequences for international reach, financial resources and for productivity and wealth creation. I read of the fantastic achievement of 97% of our electricity being generated from renewables. But Scotland has no substantial renewable energy technology or manufacturing leadership in this chain.

Meanwhile Vestas has global leadership, massive productivity gains and employs 25,000 with confidence. It has the resources to power, finance and support a whole network of economic and societal growth. Why Denmark and not us?

Whilst I can tell tales of West Coast America and East Coat China it’s these type of comparisons with similarly endowed European countries that seems to me to be both most frustrating and most encouraging. They are not fundamentally different from us, or from what we aspire to be, but they achieve leaps into the future that we do not. I’ve just been nominated to become Chair of Kinnevik in Sweden. Joining me on the board will be a remarkable gentleman by the name of Harald Mix. Harald was the prime initial mover of battery company Northvolt ( which already has a order backlog approaching $30 billion). Not satisfied with this Harald is now devoting his time to the set up of Green Steel – which may be the world leader in decarbonising this troubled industry.

Why do we need not have such projects and such leaders? We have the clean energy; we have the history and we should have the motivation. I have certainly never been approached by British, let alone Scottish, visionaries to back any of this here.

Why not ? I think much of the problem comes from my own finance industry which would not dream of such ambition, such capital intensity or such a time frame. But I would add two elements: there seems to be no nexus of support in Scottish circles and little evident encouragement from those in political and administrative power. The latter is most certainly not a party political point. It has been forever thus – since the Victorian age. As for the former in Sweden there is a circle of concerned and committed entrepreneurs that becomes self-reinforcing. Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentson with their billions from Spotify are at the heart of it but far from alone with Cristina Stenbeck of the Kinnevik founding family an outspoken cajoler.

The final, still more extreme example, is that of ASML in Eindhoven. Do you remember when Silicon Glen was a topic ? Where did that go? But this very week the mighty Intel admitted that it had failed to compete with TSMC and Samsung principally because it hadn’t followed the lithography map of ASML.

In itself ASML is valued at over $250 Ben and the Eindhoven region is now regularly voted to be Europe’s start-up centre and a thriving metropolis attracting brilliant young people from around the world ( ASML employees come from over 100 countries). It’s been amazing to watch ASML grow from a marginal and threatened minnow in the 1980s and into the 1990s to this. It has the good luck of at least one technological genius in its ranks. But might not Scotland? To me it’s principally the persistence, the endurance that is most lacking – and in this case finance mostly failed ASML so I’m mostly talking about a failure of corporate leadership and perhaps of entrepreneurial spirits.

There’s one other feature of modern economies that seems unnecessarily malfunctioning in Scotland. Our decades of educational underachievement are far too big a topic in general but that of the inability of our top level educational establishments to interact with our process of economic development is simpler and I think solvable.

I’ve seen this improve in a very analogous case. I’m a trustee of Johns Hopkins University. It has an almost unparalleled expertise in healthcare but almost equally in engineering and space exploration. Yet it produced minimal corporate development ( as seen in the catastrophic problems of Baltimore). But a determination effort to unblock this has transformed the situation in five years with a list of start-ups of seriousness, scale and calibre emerging.

Now we have the raw material in Scotland too – way better than in Scandinavia – and yet without the once prevailing dislike of corporate involvement. We need to put together serious academics, serious entrepreneurs, positive local and national government and the financial resources that we should surely boast. I’m not sure I see this at present. But it’s plausible.

What does this all add up to ? I think it’s a plea to work together, to drop both conventional political divides and the mix of apathy and conservatism that ails far too many in Scottish, and indeed British circles. It’s to aspire ambitiously. I know we could do far better in my own financial world if we were to challenge ourselves in this task.

We need to be more radical and above all more committed, determined and hopeful.

James Anderson is joint manager of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust.

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