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Confidence in UK technology companies hit as early-stage investment falls

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Confidence in UK technology companies hit as early-stage investment falls

The U.K.'s technology community has found it harder to attract investment since the Brexit vote, and many have a bleak outlook when it comes to finding backers over the next 12 months, according to a recent survey.

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Some 28% of 200 technology advocates said they have experienced investors deferring investment decisions as a direct result of the uncertainty around the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, Tech London Advocates, or TLA, said in a May report. Also, 59% of those surveyed believe it will be harder to attract investment over the next 12 months.

TLA founder Russ Shaw said early-stage technology businesses looking for funding of up to £1 million have seen the investment pace slow over the past six months with early-stage investors such as angel investors deferring decisions on whether to invest in a business while there is still political uncertainty. Later-stage businesses backed by venture capital and private equity are not seeing the same impact, Shaw said, as earlier-stage businesses are riskier.

In the first quarter, the volume of U.K. technology deals dropped to its lowest level since the Brexit vote with 195 deals completed in the period, according to Beauhurst, a data firm focused on U.K. high-growth companies.

Tim Mills, who leads investment activity for the Angel CoFund, said the survey echoed what he has seen in the investment community. Angel investors are cautious about the economic and short-term investment cycles, he said, and they are not under the same obligations as institutional investors to deploy capital across a particular time frame.

There is still appetite for U.K. technology companies beyond local investment. Among those interviewed, there was consensus that U.S. investors remain interested in U.K. technology businesses as they look outside their home market where competition is heavy. A perception that sterling is weak is also drawing investors who are looking for deals in an overheated market.

But European investors have generally held back from investments in U.K. technology deals as they wait for political clarity.

Shaw said the U.K technology sector has gone from "strength to strength" across the past five to six years because more angel investors have come into the market and their absence could lead to a drop in the number of success stories.

Over the past few months, the messages coming out of the U.K. to markets around the world, particularly in the month of March as the original Brexit deadline approached, have been confusing, Shaw said. The U.K.'s departure from the European Union, which was set for March 29, has since been delayed twice, with the U.K. now set to leave on Oct. 31. "People don't know what to make of it," he said, adding that he would not be surprised if investment into U.K. technology companies flattens, or even dips, over the next couple of quarters.

Eyal Malinger, investment director at venture capital investor Beringea, said in an email response that he expects local angel investors will be as hesitant if the government pushes forward with its current Brexit deal.

But Shaw believes investment levels will rise once there is clarity around Brexit. "I actually think we'll see a mini-boom because there is pent up demand," Shaw said. "Investors want to invest, they just need to understand and gain more market certainty about what the landscape looks like before they do so."

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Policy and the nature of the U.K. government will be a huge determining factor in the immediate future for investment, Mills said. But if there continues to be a trend of policy supporting venture and early-stage businesses, he believes the market will remain "strongly buoyant" as we have seen historically.

Still, Shaw said a dip in investment from angel investors could have an impact on the overall U.K. technology ecosystem down the line, but he added that those businesses that "work hard" and are able to secure investment are going to become really attractive businesses in a couple of years.

Players in the technology community will have to watch the space closely to find backing.

"[We need to] connect people to different types of investors that are out there that might be willing to have a slightly higher risk profile than what might normally be out there," Shaw said.

A drop in early-stage investments could have implications for later-stage investors with a technology focus. Later-stage investors said there is still interest in U.K. tech businesses in their particular areas of the market but agreed that a dip in early-stage investment could lead to fewer opportunities for them down the line.

Trevor Hope, head of growth capital for lower-middle-market firm Mobeus Equity Partners LLP, said it can take as little as £50,000 to get a technology company to a reasonable position, and on that basis, the angel network is hugely important in getting those companies to a stage where firms like his own will invest.

David Barbour, managing partner of growth capital firm FPE Capital LLP, said a dip in investment for early-stage businesses could lead to more competition for assets down the line as the U.K.'s technology ecosystem declines and investors will have fewer companies to choose from.