ARM: Can ‘crown jewel’ of UK tech be protected?

The UK government is “looking at options” to protect and ensure future investment in Cambridge-based ARM Holdings, which is being bought by US tech giant Nvidia from Japan’s Softbank.

This is a much more relaxed attitude than the government took when Softbank bought the world-leading chip designer in July 2016. At that time, Softbank announced it had agreed to legally binding commitments to increase investment, headcount and preserve its headquarters in the UK.

It is not too late for the government to impose conditions, but conversations on whether to impose them or what they might be have not even started.

ARM’s co-founder Hermann Hauser described the deal as “an absolute disaster for Cambridge, the UK, and Europe”.

He said Nvidia would “destroy” ARM’s business model, which involves licensing chip designs to hundreds of companies around the world – some of which compete with Nvidia. ARM being acquired by one of its customers would remove that competitive advantage he said.

  • UK tech firm ARM sold to America’s Nvidia for $40bn

Nvidia’s chief executive, Jensen Huang, told reporters today that the fact that the $40bn (£31.2bn) deal was going ahead should tell you that they were confident that the commercial prospects for ARM would survive any concerns from the company’s other customers.

He also said the company intended to preserve ARM’s UK HQ and invest millions in creating a state-of-the-art supercomputer centre in Cambridge.

The one that got away?

Nvidia’s boss described ARM as “one of the greatest technology companies of all time”. It is precisely the kind of company that this government wants freedom from EU state aid rules to be able to support through long-term investment.

Having your own home-grown tech giants means you aren’t pushed around by US and Chinese mega firms so easily. That’s the philosophy at the heart of the government’s plan for state investment.

I asked a former cabinet minister if the original sale of ARM to Softbank would have been allowed by the new regime. First of all, he said, you would need a new law. Currently takeovers can only be blocked on the grounds of media plurality, financial stability or national security.

Surely in the age of cyber warfare, high end computing is the new cavalry and there could be grounds to block this deal?

However, the former minister said that the status of the US and Japan as allies makes that a hard flag to raise. The government would have to instruct the Competition and Markets Authority to conduct an investigation and its findings could be challenged in the courts. “There is no point starting something with limited chances of success.”

The new law would have to be so general as to allow the government to block the deal essentially because it “feels like blocking it” – which would deter foreign investment in the UK.

“Insulating the UK from possible takeovers from Silicon Valley would mean most entrepreneurs would then prefer to start their companies in the US. Why would you limit your options,” the former minister said.

The crown jewel of UK technology has been passed around international investors but the new boss says although the owners have changed, it’s not going anywhere. Without government intervention – which is tricky – we will just have to take his word for that for now.

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