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Britain’s Tesla hopes for big things from ‘microfactories’ | Automotive industry

The last year has been tricky for electric vehicle startups. After a burst of investment mania in which companies raised billions on the mere promise of battery propulsion, valuations have come back down to earth.

One of the loudest thuds has come from Arrival, the closest to what could be called a British electric vehicle champion. Its market value on the Nasdaq has fallen from $15bn (£11.6bn) in March 2021, when it first completed a merger with a listed cash shell, to about $1.75bn.

Almost all its startup rivals have suffered similar plunges, but Arrival is arguably a special case. The company is trying to move fast – launching a van, a bus and a car at the same time – and break the traditional industry model, using robot-controlled “microfactories” that it hopes will bounce manufacturers from the Henry Ford age to the iPhone era.

The UK is key to those ambitions, and Arrival – founded by Russian entrepreneur Denis Sverdlov, incorporated in Luxembourg, listed in New York, but with research and development in the UK – is in turn an appropriate symbol for the hopes of the British automotive industry.

Its first products are being developed in Banbury and built in Bicester, both in Oxfordshire, and the company wants Bicester to be the model for microfactories across the world. Now it just needs to make the thing work. That is proving harder than expected: delays mean it has had to halve forecasts for this year to 600 vans.

“There are all sorts of people who are wondering if the microfactory will work,” says Mike Abelson, chief executive of Arrival Automotive, speaking from the Bicester shed, where half-wrapped robot arms stand poised to start work. “The only way to prove that is to produce the vehicles. We’ll be doing that this year, at rate and with quality. I’m very confident.”

Arrival’s futuristic looking electric van painted in familiar brown and gold UPS livery, as seen through the windscreen of another van
UPS has signed a supply deal with Arrival for its van. Photograph: David Levene/The Observer

The factories will cost even less than the £100m Arrival initially suggested when it first emerged from “stealth mode” in 2019; the latest estimate, once it has the model working, is £38m. That pays for a microfactory theoretically capable of 10,000 cars a year – in contrast with the high hundreds of millions of pounds required for a traditional large-scale car plant. Arrival hopes to be able to install a new factory anywhere with a big enough shed (and market) in six to 12 months, compared with an industry that usually moves in seven-year cycles.

“We don’t have to forecast four or five years in advance,” says Abelson. “This idea that we can react quickly to demand is a big advantage.”

Demand is there, if it can deliver. Arrival has 60,000 orders for the van, which will be available with battery capacity options between 67 and 133kWh; the latter would give a 249-mile laden range, says Patrick Bion, an ex-Tesla engineer who is leading work on the van, which starts road trials this spring. Bion took the wheel for a short demonstration in the car park: the van moved quietly and relatively smoothly with a tight turning circle, although an inelegant lurch to a stop showed work was still needed.

Production will be controlled by robots built by a former Nasa roboticist, with autonomous mobile platforms (cheerily named WeMos, short for “wheeled mobility”) ferrying the vehicles between six cells with robot arms arranged around them.

Two small autonomous wheeled robots with components piled on them rolling along
‘WeMos’ moving parts around the factory. Photograph: David Levene/The Observer

The vans are made up of about 30 “Lego block” sub-assemblies, and the process aims to avoid complex and time-consuming joins such as welding. It is the same with the buses, which are made from 1.5-metre modules that can be mixed and matched to add more doors or seats.

The car adds another intriguing direction. Arrival is working with Uber to design a hard-wearing vehicle for taxi-app drivers – although it will be sold on the open market, meaning some retail demand is likely as well.

All the vehicles share many components, such as battery modules, inverters and drive units. They also use plastic composite body panels, which save weight and avoid huge, expensive metal presses. Using such fossil-fuel-based products is an uncomfortable trade-off for a company that makes a big deal of its green credentials, but Arrival says the panels are 100% recyclable.

The futuristic, grey and white minimalist interior of the Arrival bus, with long roof mounted video screens and a lot of standing room
The company’s bus is assembled from mix-and-match 1.5 metre modules. Photograph: David Levene/The Observer

At its Banbury and Bicester facilities, the company still has a startup atmosphere, with employees gathering for lunch at a canteen right on the factory floor. There is little sense of hierarchy and people roam about – including Sverdlov, who bumps into the Observer briefly, before dashing off to test some prototypes after a nervous greeting.

Later in the day he offers a few more words when our paths cross again. “We do something that’s never been done before,” he says. “I think we’re doing it quite successfully.”

Sverdlov has for the most part avoided reporters when he can. He was born in the USSR, in what is now Georgia, and founded a software company in 2000, after graduating from university in St Petersburg. In 2007 he founded telecoms company Scartel, which also made the unusual Yota smartphones. He sold it in 2012 for $1.2bn, before taking a surprising step: he served just over a year in the cabinet of then Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet as a deputy minister for communications and mass m edia.

The Observer’s visit to Arrival took place before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Sverdlov later said via a spokesperson that his days of moving in Moscow political circles were long past, and that he and his family had lived outside Russia since 2013. He has said that he has never met Vladimir Putin personally, and that he has “no connection to the Russian government in any form”.

Scartel’s success brought him into contact with Russia’s wealthy class. Sergey Chemezov, a now-sanctioned telecoms oligarch and close friend of Putin, was seen as a supporter (but not a shareholder) of Yota, and the company was later bought by sanctioned billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s MegaFon. Most notably, Winter Capital, an investment fund founded by Russia’s richest man, Vladimir Potanin, holds a small stake in Arrival. Potanin was sanctioned by Canada earlier this month.

Arrival declined to comment on Potanin, but said it was “against war of any kind”, in a statement, adding: “Arrival is saddened and concerned, like the rest of the world, about the impact of the situation on any communities involved in the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine.”

Denis Sverdlov in a black fleece and baseball  cap
Russian founder Denis Sverdlov made his fortune in telecoms. Photograph: David Jensen/Alamy

The company is not reliant on Russian capital or materials. Arrival’s biggest investors are household-name companies from around the world, ranging from the world’s biggest investor, BlackRock, to UPS – the global delivery company, with which it has a van supply deal – and Korean carmaker Hyundai.

Sverdlov, whose Kinetik fund still controls nearly three-quarters of the company, is clearly very closely involved in running Arrival. He instigated its whole “device on wheels” philosophy, Bion says.

There will be two tests of Sverdlov’s success: first and most obviously, can Arrival make money? But second, will other automotive manufacturers be converted to the microfactory model? Even Tesla, the disruptor par excellence, has so far stuck with production lines. Arrival has discussed producing its vehicles on a traditional assembly line with Hyundai, but so far is sticking with the “micro” approach.

“If you take the existing model and apply the microfactory to it, it won’t make sense,” says Bion. “Other [carmakers] could do it in this way, to simplify, but they don’t have the push to do that.”

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Culture

Top 10 Florida Cities Dominate The Business Startup Landscape In The U.S.

Top 10 Florida Cities And Business Startup Landscape In The U.S.

The Voice Of EU | Florida emerges as a hub for entrepreneurial endeavors, with its vibrant business landscape and conducive environment for startups. Renowned for its low corporate tax rates and a high concentration of investors, the Sunshine State beckons aspiring entrepreneurs seeking fertile grounds to launch and grow their businesses.

In a recent report by WalletHub, Florida cities dominate the list of the top 10 best destinations for business startups, showcasing their resilience and economic vitality amidst challenging times.

From Orlando’s thriving market to Miami’s dynamic ecosystem, each city offers unique advantages and opportunities for entrepreneurial success. Let’s delve into the chronologically listed cities that exemplify Florida’s prominence in the business startup arena.

1. Orlando Leads the Way: Orlando emerges as the most attractive market in the U.S. for business startups, with a remarkable surge in small business establishments. WalletHub’s latest report highlights Orlando’s robust ecosystem, fostering the survival and growth of startups, buoyed by a high concentration of investors per capita.

2. Tampa Takes Second Place: Securing the second spot among large cities for business startups, Tampa boasts a favorable business environment attributed to its low corporate tax rates. The city’s ample investor presence further fortifies startups, providing essential resources for navigating the initial years of business operations.

3. Charlotte’s Diverse Industries: Claiming the third position, Charlotte stands out for its diverse industrial landscape and exceptionally low corporate taxes, enticing companies to reinvest capital. This conducive environment propels entrepreneurial endeavors, contributing to sustained economic growth.

4. Jacksonville’s Rising Profile: Jacksonville emerges as a promising destination for startups, bolstered by its favorable business climate. The city’s strategic positioning fosters entrepreneurial ventures, attracting aspiring business owners seeking growth opportunities.

5. Miami’s Entrepreneurial Hub: Miami solidifies its position as a thriving entrepreneurial hub, attracting businesses with its dynamic ecosystem and strategic location. The city’s vibrant startup culture and supportive infrastructure make it an appealing destination for ventures of all sizes.

6. Atlanta’s Economic Momentum: Atlanta’s ascent in the business startup landscape underscores its economic momentum and favorable business conditions. The city’s strategic advantages and conducive policies provide a fertile ground for entrepreneurial ventures to flourish.

7. Fort Worth’s Business-Friendly Environment: Fort Worth emerges as a prime destination for startups, offering a business-friendly environment characterized by low corporate taxes. The city’s supportive ecosystem and strategic initiatives facilitate the growth and success of new ventures.

8. Austin’s Innovation Hub: Austin cements its status as an innovation hub, attracting startups with its vibrant entrepreneurial community and progressive policies. The city’s robust infrastructure and access to capital foster a conducive environment for business growth and innovation.

9. Durham’s Emerging Entrepreneurship Scene: Durham’s burgeoning entrepreneurship scene positions it as a promising destination for startups, fueled by its supportive ecosystem and strategic initiatives. The city’s collaborative culture and access to resources contribute to the success of new ventures.

10. St. Petersburg’s Thriving Business Community: St. Petersburg rounds off the top 10 with its thriving business community and supportive ecosystem for startups. The city’s strategic advantages and favorable business climate make it an attractive destination for entrepreneurial endeavors.

Despite unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation, and high inflation, these top Florida cities remain resilient and well-equipped to overcome obstacles, offering promising opportunities for business owners and entrepreneurs alike.


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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.


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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.


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