By-Sir Dominic Asquith KCMG
‘Marriage made in heaven … a well-trodden path … technology doesn’t do market access.’
Three phrases that I heard repeated on another busy Friday evening in my garden a while ago. The occasion? The joint launch of the India-UK Future Tech month and the 2017-18 Tech Rocketship Awards (TRA)—the British government’s flagship tech entrepreneurship programme. It was a fitting end to a day that started with a dawn flight to Chandigarh to participate in a discussion with over 100 young thinkers about some of the challenges they face, including from one young entrepreneur: ‘How do you get youth into your business strategy?’
Last year, TRA, as it is commonly known, was launched by two Royals—the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—and brought to a close by two Prime Ministers. There were over 600 applications, looking for the chance we were giving to secure investors. My role this year? A career-first, playing ‘dragon’ at perhaps India’s toughest pitching session. My fellow panellists were India’s finest thought-leaders, funders, torch-bearers of entrepreneurship and Start-Up India. Opposite us were wholly committed and ambitious entrepreneurs. Although in my own garden, I was way outside my comfort zone.
Let’s take the first phrase: ‘marriage made in heaven,’ referring to UK-India partnership on entrepreneurship. It came from the lips of the father of Indian entrepreneurship. You just can’t buy that credibility. But you are right to want facts. Technology-led entrepreneurship drives the already-strong traffic of investment between India and the UK. This is carried on a ‘living bridge’ of people, language, ideas, culture, education, food, sport—but backed up by hard business nous. India is among the top-four investors in the UK, with technology companies accounting for the lion’s share at 31%. Indian IT giants like Infosys, HCL, Wipro and Tech Mahindra find the UK a home from home.
Why? A wealth of skilled domestic talent, the UK and London as the world’s best places to develop digital businesses, low corporation tax and fourth place in the global innovation index, to name a few. And I know they want to continue putting their money where the mouth is, increasing their current 13% revenue share from the UK to closer to the 60% from the US.
This reflects the wider India-UK commercial partnership, which has always been strong. India presents huge opportunities for the UK economy and business; bilateral trade is over £16 billion, with positive growth over the last financial year during a tough global environment. The UK is single-largest G20 investor in India in the last 10 years, investing almost double what Germany and France do combined, and one in 20 of those in the organised private sector work for UK firms. Last year, Indian companies safeguarded more jobs in the UK than any other country, even the US. India’s commitment to the strength of the UK economy is demonstrated by the more than 110,000 high skilled jobs that over 800 of its companies provide in the UK. And the numbers are growing year on year. When the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and his deputy Rajesh Agrawal visit next month, both will talk about London’s strengths as a global financial centre, the best location globally for fintech investment.
Complacency kills innovation and ambition. So I take that second statement, ‘a well-trodden path,’ as a challenge that the UK must become even more responsive to India’s needs as we exit the EU. We have no option but build an even stronger free-trading nation forming new kinds of partnerships with the world’s leading economies.
This month marks two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to London, and one year since our Prime Minister chose India, and specifically India-UK Technology Summit, as the landing point for her first overseas trade mission. Between them, the visits delivered collectively over £10 billion of tech-driven commercial deal deals. Just as important, however, are the closer, more responsive commercial partnerships that have now formed. In the first week of November, the Indian and British science and technology ministers announced the first Newton Bhabha prize covering technology and innovation, presided over by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, someone who embodies that ‘living bridge’ I referred to. UK start-up Kloudpad, which started off with a £100 million investment last year in high-tech electronics in Kochi’s smart city programme, has enhanced its project value to £290 million. These examples reinforce the popularity and high-level buy-in behind TRA and Start-Up India.
In this spirit of responsiveness, I am pleased to kick off, alongside our Secretary of State for International Trade Dr Liam Fox, the India-UK Future Tech month. India needs to produce only fully electric cars from 2030—that’s why our oversubscribed Electric Vehicle mission will showcase the UK’s best battery power and automation offer across the Midlands and the UK, matching India’s emerging competitive federalism with the UK’s regional offer. PM Modi envisages Start-Up India helping to provide skilled employment and opportunity to India’s one million graduates each month—that’s why we launched this year’s TRA, providing India’s top tech companies with access to investment and mentoring to establish and scale up in the UK. India’s rising middle class consumes ever more complex creative, VR-driven services—that’s why we are introducing more than 100 Indian tech buyers, innovators, government officials and entrepreneurs to the best technology the UK offers. They will open the eyes of hundreds of potential UK exporters to the Indian opportunity, landing business deals during a series of ‘Meet the Buyer’ events and conferences, including Innovate 2017 in Birmingham.
And finally to the future. PM Theresa May set out at the start of the year in London and again recently in Florence that our aim is to be a magnet for international talent, a home to pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead, a global free-trading nation that is best friend to European partners and reaches beyond Europe to other leading economies. That means India. Technology doesn’t care for market access. India’s recent 30 place jump in the EoDB rankings—and we are proud to have been engaging with India on this in recent years—emphasises the potential for growth together. In the same rankings, the UK remains ahead of Germany and France in areas including starting a business and securing funding. That seems to fit rather well with India’s ambitions.
What we mustn’t do is slow down. Once the India-UK Future Tech month draws to a close, we will drive more traffic over the multi-layered ‘living bridge’ of ideas, technology, capital and culture between India and the UK. We will organise another creative ‘peak’ of activity in Mumbai in February covering design, retail and fashion—once again sprinkled with visiting stardust.
PM Modi called the UK and India ‘an unbeatable combination.’ I look forward to technology confirming the angel investor was right to talk of ‘a marriage made in heaven.’
The author is British High Commissioner to India