Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving a statement in Downing Street in central London on April 27, 2020 after returning to work following more than three weeks off after being hospitalized with the Covid-19 illness.
LONDON – The U.K. government introduced new rules this week that are designed to protect Britain’s best and brightest companies from being gobbled up by other, potentially hostile, nations.
But some are asking if the rules, which have been in the works for several years and apply from this Wednesday this week, are too little and too late given two of Britain’s most innovative companies have already been sold overseas. Cambridge-based chipmaker Arm was sold to Japanese tech giant SoftBank in 2016 and London-based artificial intelligence lab DeepMind was sold to Google in 2014.
Matt Clifford, the chief executive of start-up factory Entrepreneur First, told CNBC that the government should have “probably” intervened in these deals. “Tech is a big and growing national security issue,” he said, adding that “technological sovereignty is very important.”
While Arm sold for £24 billion ($31.6 billion), DeepMind only sold for a reported £400 million. Given DeepMind is widely perceived as one of the world leaders in AI today, the Google deal is viewed by experts as a bit of a bargain.
Ian Hogarth, an entrepreneur turned tech investor, believes that DeepMind should have been nationalized by the U.K government so that it didn’t have to sell itself to an overseas tech giant.
“I find it hard to believe that the U.K. would not be better off were DeepMind still an independent company,” he wrote in an essay in June 2018. “How much would Google sell DeepMind for today? $5 billion? $10 billion? $50 billion? It’s hard to imagine Google selling DeepMind to Amazon, or Tencent or Facebook at almost any price.”
Hogarth added: “With hindsight, would it have been better for the U.K. government to block this acquisition and help keep it independent? Even now, is there a case to be made for the U.K. to reverse this acquisition and buy DeepMind out of Google and reinstate it as independent entity?”
While DeepMind is a leader in AI, Arm is a leader in semiconductors, or chips. Its energy-efficient chip architectures are used in 95% of the world’s smartphones and it is widely regarded as the jewel in the crown of the British tech industry.
“In Arm’s case, I can’t see why some investors here didn’t outbid the foreign folks,” said Jon Crowcroft, a computer science professor at the University of Cambridge. “Arm are a massive success and long term super viable too.”
SoftBank is now in the process of trying to sell Arm to U.S. chipmaker Nvidia for $40 billion but there are a number of hurdles to overcome before the deal goes through, including regulators in China.
Even though DeepMind and Arm are no longer British in some people’s eyes, there are a number of other fast-growing tech companies that very much are — and could be worth protecting. Security firm Darktrace and AI chipmaker Graphcore, for example.
Beyond AI and chips, Crowcroft said that Britain has aerospace and biotech companies that are worth protecting, such as BAE Systems.
Some have pointed out that the new rules could potentially make it harder for founders and their investors to sell companies.
But Chris Smith, a venture capitalist at Playfair Capital in London, told CNBC he doesn’t think it will have a material impact.
“The scope is likely to be fairly limited, both in terms of the number of countries on the ‘no deal’ list and the number that would meet the strategic test,” he said. “In reality, it reflects what we already know, that we have two tech universes — one in the West and one in the East.”