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The future of UK tech rests on the creation of decacorns, says CBI president

The UK’s easiest opportunities are still in the EU, but these are unable to be seized due to problems with its trade deal

The UK has been urged to follow in the US' footsteps and pursue the creation of 'decacorns' - businesses with the potential to scale towards a $10 billion valuation.

Brian McBride, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said UK businesses need to scale up, build partnerships, and adopt new digital and tech skills to boost the nation's economy.

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The CBI president said in a speech on 22 November that startups and scaleups are essential to the technology sector in the UK, which is valued at more than $1 trillion and has 1.6 million workers in the sector, but the further growth is both needed and possible.

The UK is already attracting plenty of tech investment and is second only to the US, he said. The nation is also one of three countries, with the US and China, with more than 100 companies with unicorn status  - those with a $1 billion valuation before being publicly listed.

McBride's comments follow and align with one of the key messages from Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's recent Autumn Statement was that the UK government intends to harness technology to underpin future economic growth.

The UK is already one of the world leaders in technology, along with the US and China, and the government plans to harness the nation's "Brexit freedoms" to deliver its tech ambitions and turn the nation into 'the next Silicon Valley'.

During his speech, the CBI president also suggested that deeper collaboration is needed between businesses and universities, and a culture that encourages companies to learn from each other’s innovations must be fostered to further develop the UK's leadership in technology.

He went on to say that the UK’s clearest and easiest opportunities are still in the EU, but the country is unable to seize the opportunities of its trade deal due to the impasse presented by the Northern Ireland Protocol. He said flexibility is needed from both sides to reach opportunities in tech, research, and innovation.

However, the biggest issue to business is labour and skills shortages, said the CBI president. 

“The reality is the UK has an ageing society and one of the legacies of the pandemic is a sharp rise in inactivity among older workers, with tens of thousands of people retiring early – and record numbers reporting chronic ill-health,” said McBride. “We also have one of the biggest skills mismatches in the G7.

To solve this, he urged the government to deliver the new Shortage Occupation List, a collection of roles the government believes are in short supply within the labour market and have more relaxed eligibility criteria for sponsored work visas. McBride said this could help the Migration Advisory Committee diagnose shortages in lower-skilled roles.

Lastly, he added that the UK won’t be able to rely on employment growth for economic growth, and instead business tech adoption can help as it’s a big economic booster.

“But despite an uptick during the pandemic, just one in five UK firms now have ‘high’ digital tech adoption compared to nearly two in five in the Netherlands and half of Danish firms,” he said. “Closing that gap and getting more businesses tech-enabled promises big prizes."

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