Explore the ScaleUp Annual Review 2022

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Access to markets

Access to Markets – including both international and domestic UK markets – remains the most critical challenge for scaleup businesses, with 73% stating that it is one of their top three issues, a continuing trend across the last three years.

Finding the right markets for the products and services developed by scaleups is at the core of their scaling activity, making the challenges faces complex, and often blended with other key issues. For instance accessing the right talent with specific market or procurement expertise, finding the right flexible space in which to develop a new product line, or adding existing capacity in order to meet new orders, or access to the right kind of finance to enable them to enter a new market overseas.

Five in ten scaleups export, and six in ten are planning to either start exporting, or export to new markets in the future. Whilst scaleups remain optimistic about their growth in 2023 with nine in ten expecting to grow their turnover or headcount, the wider global economic backdrop is acutely linked to market pressures faced by scaleups.

Given their global outlook, it is essential that efforts are made to ensure that they are able to fully explore their exporting options. In 2021, we stressed the importance of market access following Covid-19 and post-Brexit.  The Pink Book of that year showed the pandemic had very wide-ranging impacts on UK transactions, particularly in finished manufactured goods.  The latest Balance of Payments data from the 2022 Pink Book show the UK’s trade balance moving from a surplus equal to 0.4% of GDP in 2020 to a deficit equal to 0.8% of GDP in 2021. This is against a complex set of wider factors, including covid, wider supply chain issues [The Pink Book 2022]. Recent currency fluctuations in the final two quarters of this year will have a further impact upon the UKs net trade position. With the Bank of England predicting a recession in 2023 and into 2024 it is absolutely critical that services geared toward our most productive, and international businesses are enhanced.

We have previously highlighted that market access programmes, compared to other areas of business support, are markedly less common – even though this is one of the specific challenges highlighted by scaleup leaders. With EU structural funding coming to an end, and the changes to the way that money is deployed at a local level for business support services coming in to effect, we must not lose sight of just how critical business support programmes can be to a company as it grows.

This year 50% of Scaleups feel there is very little support available for businesses like theirs, and they are also less optimistic about the UK business environment, with 58% saying it is now harder to grow a business than in the past, and 50% worrying the UK will not be a good place to grow a business in the future.

Tuning our UK ecosystem to support companies is important to both help companies here to grow, and also to retain firms with the potential to become world beating. Scaleup businesses still see Europe as their largest trading partner, but we also know that there is strong appetite to do more in Australia, Asia and in the US. 

As we have highlighted elsewhere, the world is not standing still and there are a substantial number of active programmes underway in countries abroad designed to attract scaleups to move, bringing their innovation, jobs and future growth with them. And this is not just important in helping our scaleups to export, but also ensuring they are able to engage with Public Sector Procurement opportunities, a facet of public spending far more readily utilised in the US, and that they are encouraged to engage with Corporates


Exporting not only is a characteristic of successful Scale ups but trading internationally means that companies are 4 times less likely to fail in a normalised economic environment and – critically – they are 10 times less likely to fail in a distressed economic environment such as the one we are operating in today. This stems from exporting companies being able to better diversify risks, it also emphasises the value of aspiring to be best in class by competing internationally against a wider field.

There have been a range of initiatives in recent years which can play a part in improving market access for scaleups. We welcome the Department for International Trade’s refreshed export strategy Made in the UK, Sold to the World launched just after our 2021 Annual Review. The Export Support Service, and the expansion of the UK Export Academy with an aim of helping ambitious businesses to navigate the technicalities of exporting and find new opportunities in overseas markets – if implemented in the right way, could also be a strong tool in aiding companies to find the right support. Indeed, much of this activity is in line with recommendations which we have made, including the need to ensure that we have at scale, long term institutions in the UK. However, too much is still fragmented; unclear, clunky, complex and ‘uncoordinated’. It is important to ensure that government and private sector work seamlessly together, but as we have stated previously, there are some roles which only Government can fulfil, such as providing impartial in-market connections on a global scale, through embassies and wider consular services. We believe that there should be a networks of scaleup ‘desks’ situated within overseas embassies/innovation agencies and banks overseas.

These – alongside relationship management structures, should use data to pinpoint our scaling firms and connect them swiftly to relevant resources. 

The Electronic Trade Documents Bill is currently passing through Parliament, which will provide a legal framework to enable the digitisation of trade. Implemented correctly this can unlock substantial value helping to simplify and reduce costs and complexity leading ultimately to more trade.

It is above all critical to connect up initiatives, including those relating to some of the wider challenges scaleups face. 34% of scaleup leaders cite not having the right people or the right skills as one of the three major obstacles to overseas trade, it is important to ensure that as well as utilising trade, and usage of initiatives like UKEF as a proxy to indicate future scaleup growth, the Scaleup Visa should also be well understood and considered as part of a company’s export journey.

We have endorsed a number of scaleup focused, regionally-based programmes such as Silicon Valley Comes to the UK (SVV2UK), the London Mayor’s International Business Programme and the Manchester Global Scale-up Programme. These each are each scaleup focused initiatives geared towards exports, and we have seen clear impact in their models and believe that these kinds of export focused programmes should be replicated in regions around the UK as part of further implementing the Export Strategy, and in developing a comprehensive offer for scaleup firms.

Common factors which make these programmes successful for scaleups include:

  • Comprehensive recruitment and selection processes for businesses, which are in line with identified priorities for the region;
  • Strong peer to peer elements with the programmes working through a cohort structure, onboarding qualifying scaling companies together, so that they work in a peer environment;
  • Specialist workshops, tailored to the needs of the cohort of companies, to help them prepare for export opportunities;
  • Tailored Trade missions which the cohort of companies undertakes together, and which often include ‘meet the corporate’ roundtable events to bring the companies together with potential buyers around the world.
  • High quality mentoring relationships, which also enable companies to access to their Alumni networks;
  • Strong Account Management, involving a dedicated account manager relationship to take the companies through each stage of the programme.
  • Such dedicated scaleup export programmes are partnerships between the public and private sector and have shown significant impact. 


The latest reports from UK Export Finance (UKEF) show that £7.4 billion worth of finance and insurance in the last financial year was distributed, with £3.6 billion going specifically on sustainable projects in 2021 in line with proposals for UKEF to become Carbon Neutral by 2050. The new General Export Facility (GEF), which is an important tool for smaller growing businesses, supported almost £250 million in working capital loans. Across all UKEF products 545 companies were directly supported. This remains low, and suggests that further efforts should be made to ensure that there is a much clearer awareness of how UKEF products – particularly the GEF – can be utilised by scaleup companies. It will be important to consider greater flexibility for the GEF, through discussions with banks, UKEF and Treasury to increase delegated limits and tenors.

Following an overhaul announced at the end of last year, the The Export Development Guarantee (EDG) from UKEF has also become an important proposition for Exporters or potential exporters to increase options for long term finance to support export growth. It is important for further tailoring of products to gain a wider market reach for UKEF to continue. 

Current market conditions are placing substantial strain upon supply chains within the UK and globally. This turbulence has a direct impact upon scaleup businesses looking to plan their growth and enter new export markets, and it makes a joined up service for scaleups even more important to ensure that they do not waste time, or stall their growth because they can not find the right product for them.

We have previously emphasised the importance of ensuring that UKEF has the right skillsets to engage with scaleup companies, and that there is also knowledge of UKEF across DIT networks, and also the wider ecosystem. Whilst it is positive that there is a clear awareness of the need to better engage with SMEs overall, and the recent announcement that Virgin  Money is joining the existing lenders: HSBC, Santander, Barclays, Lloyds, NatWest and Newable as part of the GEF, there is still more work to be done. Connecting UKEF up more comprehensively with other aspects of a company’s scaling and export journey is key, including DIT trade advisors, in-market representatives, such as in embassies and consulates – and through the emerging Account Management models we are observing such as Innovate UK EDGE, and those at a local level, to ensure that access to the right finance is as simple as possible for exporting scaleups.


Valuing Innovation in Procurement – the importance of utilising procurement effectively to support UK companies

Scaleups are highly innovative. This year’s survey shows that 8 out of 10 scaleups have developed a new product or service in the last three years, and we can also see that 50% would like easier access to Innovate UK and R&D funding. We also know that 5 in 10 have collaborated, or aspire to collaborate with Corporates, Government and Universities.

It is very positive that scaleup businesses are recognised directly within the UKRI five year strategy and within Innovate UK’s Strategic Delivery Plan – each of which highlight the critical importance of scaleups, and enabling them to overcome the barriers they perceive with their growth, particularly through the Innovate UK EDGE network, which is providing a Relationship Managed service for companies within the Innovate UK portfolio.

However, whilst there are positive strides being made on a number of fronts, there are also barriers associated with innovation: in particular in the way that it is often valued within procurement structures, or within wider supply chains which can cause innovative companies to be blocked out of key procurement frameworks, or can see compliance within corporate supply chain structures creating unnecessary burdens and time delays which can stifle growth. This is further noted in the recent Entrepreneurs Network Briefing Paper which highlights that Public Bodies often set excessive risk qualification criteria, and also often require ‘past performance’ to be considered, which is not possible for new companies, or innovative companies now seeking to bid for a procurement contract for the first time.

It is important to improve access to schemes and programmes such as SBRI to boost access to markets for scaleups and do better at connecting scaling businesses to key decision makers. Introduction of “meet the buyer” style events and opportunities to showcase products and services are key for both corporates, and for Government procurement. It is also critical to ensure that those working within the ‘back office’ functions of procurement are given improved education on how to respond to scaleup companies with innovative ideas seeking to gain an anchor contract, as well as making those processes more transparent for scaleup leaders.

In particular, we can see that in countries that are more consistently good at scaling companies, public procurement is better utilised by Government to create an anchor for domestic company growth. The US uses this lever to far greater effect than the UK Government currently does with the Small Business Administration representing an at scale, long term intervention. The US Government also uses its Procurement power in overseas markets often investing in early stage R&D intensive scaling businesses with capability to bring solutions to market to solve significant public health and societal issues. In these instances the US Government acts as an ‘advance purchaser’ and thereby ‘investor’ in, for example,  evolving bio-tech solutions based in the UK. There are also wider examples of substantial SME focused procurement programmes in countries such as South Korea, which has a comparable sized economy to the UK, and Singapore. In each of these instances there are clear ‘set asides’ for SMEs and an active policy programme designed to engage those businesses in taking advantage of the opportunities which these present, including a procurement focused loan programme in South Korea.

The UK is currently not as targeted / structured or as flexible at this: Based upon our 2022 Scaleup Business Survey, there are three persistent barriers to engaging more with Government procurement opportunities, namely:  

  • Complex procurement processes (61%);
  • Time taken to win a contract (52%), and
  • Finding Opportunities to bid (50%).

Since our work began in 2015, and the Scaleup Taskforce in 2017 which focused very heavily which focused heavily on market and Procurement access with a number of recommendations made, we do see a marked increase in the number of SMEs being bought from by government. Whilst we are not able to track all scaleups within these numbers, we can see that there is a comparable doubling to 802 visible scaleups now being bought from, which is very encouraging.

There is a real opportunity for the UK to much better leverage Public Procurement spending towards scaling companies and provide opportunities as firms are starting to scale. Unlocking even small contracts within the Public Procurement total towards innovative scaleup firms is an important step as a Public procurement contract can act as a kite mark for a business seeking wider investment and going global. 

The SBRI is an important part of this, however, to unlock this properly, it will be necessary to better embed, and prioritise it, it across all Government departments, and to ensure that procurement champions within departments are properly objectivised, with clear KPIs, and an understanding of how to flexibly and proactively engage with the UK scaleup economy and structure frameworks and procurement opportunities appropriately. This is something which we know the Council on Science and Technology has been looking at, and we will continue to work with government and other partners as the Procurement Bill gets to the next stage.

This does not need to mean greater expenditure, but rather a ‘ring fencing’, as undertaken elsewhere, of a proportion of existing departmental procurement budgets to be harnessed directly towards highly innovative scaling companies with better identification, fast tracking, relationship management and project promotion of the opportunities with streamlined application process. As the Government seeks to further utilise procurement to meet more strategic goals, such as meeting Net Zero Targets and wider missions utilising a ‘most advantageous tender’ approach, it is essential that this does not increase bureaucracy or introduce additional hurdles that favour larger companies, potentially blocking innovative scaleup companies from participation in frameworks and bidding processes.

In particular when responding to the recent Public Procurement Public consultation which has formed the basis of the Procurement Bill currently passing through Parliament, the ScaleUp Institute recommended the following occur:

  • The Procurement Bill should seek to directly address the challenges that scaleups and innovative firms face in the short term in accessing and knowing about Public Procurement opportunities as well as the streamlining of application processes – transparency and speed of actions is key – in addition to long term regulatory adjustments.
  • Government should ensure greater buying / strategic partnership with scaleup companies by objectivising procurement champions / managers to this end and ensuring their objectives are aligned and measured to a common standard; targets for working with scaleups should be deployed.
  • Greater use should be made of sandboxes such as that deployed by the FCA to other key strategic areas such as Health, Energy and Climate to generate innovative solutions and fasttrack scaling business opportunities / solutions.
  • Better use should be made of Government held data to directly alert / connect scaleups to collaboration / procurement opportunities: The work undertaken by BEIS, HMRC, the Cabinet Office, the Behavioural Insights Team under the DECA project with the ScaleUp Institute, has proven that Government can harness HMRC data to identify and proactively engage with scaleup businesses and has had notable results.
  • The UK should proactively embrace the Public Sector’s role as an anchor client, convenor and connector – and ensure the Public Accounts Committee remit is broadened to support this role. 
  • The re-formulated procurement programme should adopt a relationship management approach to scaling firms and those engaged in existing Government initiatives; fast tracking of businesses supported by e.g. IUK, DIT or BBB backed initiatives should be made into UK Government contracts modelled on the work underway with the ScaleUp Visa programme. Scaleup businesses consistently emphasise their desire to be Relationship Managed with a single point of contact to enable them to navigate government and private sector programmes on offer in relation to all aspects of their business.

Government is uniquely placed to both lead by example and to use its significant buying power to encourage good behaviour.  Companies applying for Government contracts should be required to evidence how they will engage scaleups in delivery of the service and Government Tier 1 suppliers should be encouraged to engage, support and buy from scaleups. Adjustments to the procurement framework should reflect this ability and enable it to act as a catalyst for change and build on its convening power to increase the visibility of scaleup companies, from whom others can buy. It will also be worth considering how the Open Contracting Data Standard can be incorporated or drawn upon to increase the interoperability of systems, the visibility of contracts and the overall quality of data collected and published in relation to procurement.


Corporate engagement can be key to the development of hubs and clusters. Corporates once again do better than Government in the 2022 survey in terms of having a simpler bidding process, and finding opportunities on which to bid / engage. However, they do slightly worse than government on the time it takes to get paid. In the current economic climate it is vital for prompt payment policies and contract payment terms are adhered to, and enforced to give companies the flexibility that they need to deal with inflationary pressure.

Greater transparency from corporates about their suppliers, and the broader supply chains they foster, will be valuable in this regard, helping provide confidence to scaleups as they seek corporate partners, and also to the wider ecosystem. An example of this can be found in more modern and transparent collaboration models based upon the ISO 44001: Collaborative Business Relationships Standard for corporates. Developing closer knit clusters and hubs built around supply chains, will also better enable wider services and opportunities to be brought to bear, either through appropriate financing, export opportunities, or through wider leadership development. Gaining critical mass in this way will also attract much needed talent to these spaces, and foster more active recycling of this talent within key areas of sector expertise, creating a halo effect, boosting aspiration and building a pipeline of future scaleups, non-executive advisors to aid them, and angels and investor expertise to fund them.

There are a number of interesting programmes that are supporting collaboration and we will watch with interest Airbus Scale, in which is planning to build 3 business, capable of reaching  ‘Unicorn’ scaleup status  every  year, according to this report, by spinning out non-core technologies developed in its R&D labs and turning them into independent, VC-backed companies. Airbus will invest in the companies directly from its balance sheet, rather than through its corporate venture fund. This means that Airbus will also cut back on its investment in early-stage companies, but is much more focused on helping companies get on a fast- track to procurement and get through the Airbus legal processes.

For a number of years we have set out 10 top tips for corporates on how they can better work with scaleup partners, and this is still highly relevant to the current market place.


Scaleups need greater access to markets to boost their growth and in the current economic climate it is vital they have the right support as they engage with challenging global supply chains and fast-track opportunities for procurement and export.

The refreshed Export Strategy and the outcomes from the Procurement Bill currently going through Parliament are significant opportunities to deliver this support.  We urge ministers to keep up the momentum and ensure policy is joined up.  Reforming public procurement to support innovative businesses will be a powerful tool to promote growth, and is one of the key levers which Government is now able to pull. This does not mean new money, rather it means ensuring that the money we are spending is geared strategically to support innovative ideas and companies which are growing and have growth potential.

As we have stated elsewhere, a Relationship Management structure will enable the Government to wrap their arms around the UKs fastest growing firms, and help these companies to navigate appropriate public procurement opportunities, engage with appropriate trade missions at a local and national level and connect these companies to the talent they need to realise their market ambitions. 

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