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From flying taxis to painless vaccines: seven businesses to watch this year | Business

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BT

In all likelihood, BT will be under new ownership, or at the least involved in a takeover battle, in June next year. The billionaire Patrick Drahi has been assiduously building his stake in the British telecoms giant, having spent more than £3bn to acquire 18% to date, making him BT’s biggest shareholder.

After his latest purchase in December, Drahi is now barred under UK rules from mounting a full takeover bid until 15 June, although he can continue to strengthen his grip by snapping up more stock.

Drahi, an activist investor known for deep cost-cutting at businesses he controls, will also use his time to allay political concerns about a potential foreign takeover of BT, a company considered critical to the national broadband and mobile infrastructure. The government has already fired a warning shot, saying that it will “not hesitate to act” to protect BT, and in January ministers will gain tougher powers to block takeovers of sensitive national assets under the new National Security and Investment Act 2021.

Nevertheless, BT’s days of independence look numbered. Deutsche Telekom, the second-biggest shareholder in BT, with a 12.06% stake, has said it is “entertaining all options” regarding the British company’s future. It is considered a “kingmaker” in any play for BT: if Drahi were to buy its stake, he would hit the 30% threshold at which a takeover offer must be tabled.
Mark Sweney

ITM Power

This year could offer a breakthrough for one of the UK’s leading green hydrogen companies as it moves to capitalise on a boom in demand for the clean-burning gas, with plans to expand internationally.

ITM Power, a little-known Aim-listed company, has emerged as one to watch in the UK’s burgeoning green hydrogen industry. At its factory in Sheffield, it manufactures the electrolysers that turn renewable energy and water into a climate-friendly alternative to fossil gas.

A device similar to a petrol pump nozzle with an ITM Power logo being plugged into a car's refuelling port
A hydrogen car being refuelled at an ITM Power facility Photograph: Sunpix Environment/Alamy

The company, which in recent months won the chance to provide a 100-megawatt electrolyser for Shell’s Rhineland refinery in Germany, plans to open a second electrolyser plant in Sheffield and has confirmed that its first overseas plant will follow before 2024.

The demand for green hydrogen is expected to boom over the coming decades as major economies begin to pursue climate targets in earnest. Green hydrogen can replace fossil gas in power plants, factories and even heavy-duty trucks and ships, and unlike the rival “blue hydrogen” it is not derived from fossil fuels and its production does not cause carbon emissions.

ITM Power will fuel its growth with the £250m it successfully raised last month. Its end-of-year trading update shows its backlog of orders for electrolysers has climbed by more than 60% since September to the equivalent of 499 megawatts, while its pipeline of tenders stands at just over 900MW.
Jillian Ambrose

Revolut

The banking and payments app, once known for its popularity among “finance bros”, is finally making headlines for more than just controversial working conditions and its founder’s alleged connections to the Kremlin.

Over the past year, Revolut has solidified its presence overseas – with its services now available in more than 35 countries – applied for US and UK banking licences, and become one of the UK’s most valuable fintech startups, worth about £24bn after funding from major global investors including Japan’s Softbank.

That is indicative of the company’s insatiable appetite for growth, with its founder – Russian-born former Lehman Brothers trader Nik Storonsky – declaring that he intends to make it the largest bank in Britain.

Since launching in the UK six years ago, Revolut has gone from offering a pre-paid card focused on currency exchange to a multi-service app offering business accounts, children’s cashcards, investments, wage advances and cryptocurrency trading. It has also been stacking its boardroom with people from Goldman Sachs and HSBC, and appointed ex-Standard Life Aberdeen boss Martin Gilbert as its chair. The move helped to restore and solidify its reputation, after it faced bad press in 2019 for allegedly overworking staff.

Storonsky has admitted the company has made some mistakes but is setting his sights higher. If 2021 is any indication, Revolut will continue to hit milestones in 2022, assuming it does not spread itself too thin.
Kalyeena Makortoff

Vertical Aerospace

Realistic illustration of a small, black, winged four-rotor aircraft on a circular landing pad, seen from a height, directly above
An artist’s impression of Vertical Aerospace’s flying taxi on a landing pad Photograph: Vertical Aerospace/Reuters

The Bristol-based flying taxi pioneer listed on the New York Stock Exchange just before Christmas via a Spac (special purpose acquisition company), apparently confirming its entry into the big league.

However, investors are currently debating whether flying taxis – or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs), as they like to be formally known – will prove to be Teslas or tulips. Shares leapt and then slipped quickly back 30% in the first week – labouring for takeoff, much like the embryonic eVTOLs so far seen in public.

That said, Vertical Aerospace boasts a provisional £5.5bn order book from the likes of American Airlines and Virgin, and partners including Rolls-Royce, Microsoft and Honeywell. It also aims to climb above the competition by keeping a pilot on board its vehicles, which could speed up regulatory approval. Ultimately, it claims, its VX4 aircraft will be able to fly four passengers at 200mph for costs that are “comparable to a taxi”.

Just don’t mention helicopters … (eVTOLs, it is promised, will be incomparably safer, quieter and greener).
Gwyn Topham

Arrival

Following a similar path to Vertical, Arrival listed in New York in March via a Spac merger. The company, which plans to make electric vans, taxis and buses, saw its market value soar as high as $13bn (£9.7bn) after it listed, amid electric-vehicle market mania, but it is now back at $5.1bn as investors await its first revenues. This year will bring the first true test of its abilities.

Based in the UK, with its first factory near Bicester, Oxfordshire, Arrival claims its vehicles are already as cheap as fossil fuel equivalents, and cost much less to run. Bus tests started in December, and production begins in the spring. Van production will start in the summer, followed by cars designed in partnership with Uber in 2023.

Yet perhaps the most eyecatching aspect of Arrival’s ascent is something that buyers will probably never see: founder Denis Sverdlov, a Russian telecoms billionaire, has set out to upend the logic of high-volume automotive manufacturing. Instead of the long assembly lines pioneered by Henry Ford, Arrival uses robots to build vehicles in a single small “cell”. That could mean lower set-up costs – and a whole new model of putting factories next to their biggest markets.
Jasper Jolly

Marks & Spencer

The high street stalwart seems to have had more turnaround plans during its 137-year history than it has sold hot ready-meal dinners, but its latest, post-pandemic revamp appeared to finally bear fruit last year.

M&S now needs to capitalise on the improvement in fortunes of its once-struggling clothing and homeware division. The retailer dared to dream these sales had turned a corner over the past year; in 2022 it will need to prove to investors that this recovery isn’t temporary.

While the chain is clinging to its position as the UK’s largest clothing retailer, analysts are asking whether recent fashion acquisitions including heritage name Jaeger, and a stake in sustainable brand Nobody’s Child, can keep pushing apparel sales upwards.

A tie-up with delivery firm Ocado got off to a good start, and food sales look encouraging. The question now is whether M&S will increase its stake in the joint venture.

The shares are still languishing at around a third below their value when chief executive Steve Rowe took over in 2016. There is speculation he will step down in the next 18 months, and he will surely want to leave on a high. Despite a couple of profit upgrades, M&S still has some way to go before it can reclaim the place in the FTSE 100 it lost in 2019.
Joanna Partridge

A medical device with a short nozzle instead of a sharp needle being pressed against someone's arm
Scancell’s needleless injection technology.

Scancell

This spinout from the University of Nottingham, founded in 1997 by Lindy Durrant, professor of cancer immunotherapy at the university, specialises in developing cancer vaccines and has started testing them on humans. But when the pandemic struck, the company decided to modify its vaccine technology to develop Covid shots, in collaboration with Nottingham’s two universities and backed by £2m funding from the UK’s innovation agency.

The vaccines aim to induce high T-cell immune responses in the body to identify and kill infected cells, as well as generating virus-neutralising antibodies. Scientists say a strong T-cell response would offer longer-lasting immunity, because the protection from antibodies wanes more quickly, as the current Covid jabs show.

As many people are afraid of needles, Scancell decided its vaccines would be administered via spring-powered injectors that use a narrow stream of fluid to pierce the skin. The first trials with 40 healthy volunteers started in South Africa in October, and a further trial is planned in the UK, and data from the studies is expected by June.

The company’s two main shareholders are the US health investor Redmile and the Singaporean Vulpes Life Science Fund, while Durrant and other management own 1.8% of the company. Its shares have rocketed in the past two years, from nearly 7p in early January 2020 to over 20p, but remain far below their closing high of nearly 57p, reached in October 2012.
Julia Kollewe

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Meta takes down ‘influence operations’ run by China and Russia | Meta

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Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has said it has removed a pair of “influence operations” run by China and Russia, which aimed to sway views on the US elections and the war in Ukraine.

The Russian network, the largest the company has disrupted since the war began, targeted audiences across Europe and the UK, and incorporated a “sprawling network” of websites impersonating news websites including the Guardian, according to Meta.

“It presented an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force,” said Meta’s Ben Nimmo and David Agranovich in a blogpost announcing the takedowns. “The spoofed websites and the use of many languages demanded both technical and linguistic investment. The amplification on social media, on the other hand, relied primarily on crude ads and fake accounts.

“Together, these two approaches worked as an attempted smash-and-grab against the information environment, rather than a serious effort to occupy it long term.”

The Russian actors primarily targeted Germany, but also made an impact in France, Italy, Ukraine and the UK, and began operating in May this year. A network of fake websites, including clones of the Guardian, Der Spiegel and Bild, posted original articles criticising Ukraine, Ukrainian refugees and sanctions on Russia. Those articles were then promoted across a vast array of internet services, from Facebook and Instagram, through Twitter, Change.org “and even LiveJournal”, the largely-defunct blogging site.

The fake Guardian website promoted by the group contained a story, supposedly written by Jonathan Freedland, headlined “False Staging in Bucha Revealed”, which purported to reveal that “a bloody provocation with dozens of civilian bodies was prepared by the Ukrainian military to accuse Russia of mass murder” in Bucha. Other than the story itself, the website was a perfect copy of the Guardian’s, right down to up-to-date “most viewed” links and a request to grant permission for cookies.

China’s operation in the US targeted people on both sides of the political spectrum: one wing posted memes attacking Joe Biden and the US left, while another did the same but hit out at the Republican party. Another, posting in Chinese, criticised the US over geopolitical issues, while a fourth targeted residents of the Czech Republic with anti-government memes.

But the operation was largely a flop. “Only the Czech-focused cluster saw some engagement, specifically a few hundred signatures on its petitions on domestic petition websites,” Meta’s report says.

That may, in part, be down to the apparently strong labour rights of the Chinese actors: “These accounts largely stuck to a shift pattern that coincided with a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday work schedule during working hours in China – 12 hours ahead of Florida and six hours ahead of Prague,” the report says. “They appear to have had a substantial lunch break, and a much lower level of posting during weekends. This meant that the operation was mostly posting when Americans were sleeping.”

Both influence operations were taken down as violations of Meta’s “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” rule, defined as “coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal, in which fake accounts are central to the operation”. The company has faced criticism in the past for applying a circular definition of such behaviour to justify takedowns, allowing campaigns run by western lobbyists to operate promote messages using fake groups by arguing that they aren’t using fake accounts to do so – because the accounts haven’t been banned for coordinated inauthentic behaviour.

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Hurricane Ian pushes NASA’s Artemis launch into October • The Register

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NASA’s Moon-ward Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will not be blasting off from Earth until late October at the earliest, after the vehicle was rolled back to its hangar to shelter from an incoming hurricane.

Tropical storm Ian is projected to hit Florida, where the SLS lives, over the next few days. Officials began transporting the rocket back to its Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on Monday at 2321 ET (0321 UTC, Tuesday) as a precautionary measure. Unfortunately, the move means NASA cannot launch the rocket from the Kennedy Space Center for the next few weeks. 

It’s hoped the SLS rocket will be used in NASA’s Artemis mission to, some time this decade, put the first American woman and another man on the Moon. For now, prior to that return to our natural satellite, the US space agency wants to test the SLS: it’s expected to carry an empty Orion crew capsule up into the Moon’s orbit. The podule will then return to Earth. In future, there’ll be astronauts in the pod.

The hurricane marks another set back to conduct this first-ever flight demonstration of the multi-billion-dollar SLS heavy launch vehicle – NASA’s most powerful rocket to date – that was at one point slated to fly on August 29.

Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said there was a slim chance the SLS may launch in late October, and November may be more likely. “We’re not writing it off, but it will be difficult,” he said during a media teleconference briefing on Tuesday.

When weather conditions improve, experts will assess any damage to infrastructure at the center before personnel are safely allowed back on site. Engineers then have to perform checks on the heavy launch vehicle; hardware components may need to be replaced, such as the flight’s batteries before it can be rolled back out on the launchpad. 

Hurricane Ian isn’t the only bad omen NASA has been forced to deal with. Janet Petro, the space center’s director, said a fire had erupted in the VAB. “I’ll also note that approximately at 1145 today, a fire was reported in the Vehicle Assembly Building, employees were evacuated and there were no reported injuries. The VAB is now fire safe, personnel are back inside working and the Artemis vehicle was never at risk,” she said during the briefing. An investigation to uncover the cause of the blaze is underway.

All previous attempts to launch the SLS have been scrubbed due to hydrogen fuel leakage. A team of NASA engineers performed a cryogenic demonstration test to confirm whether repairs made to address leaks were successful or not on September 21.

“The launch director has confirmed all objectives have been met for the cryogenic demonstration test, and teams are now proceeding with critical safety activities and preparations for draining the rocket’s tanks,” NASA previously said in a statement. “After encountering a hydrogen leak early in the loading process, engineers were able to troubleshoot the issue and proceed with the planned activities.” ®

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Here’s what workers and students can expect to get

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The cost-of-living crisis loomed large in Budget 2023, with a host of temporary supports announced for businesses, households and students.

The Irish Government has today (27 September) announced a number of measures designed to protect workers and those in higher education as part of the 2023 Budget.

Among the measures being promised are a package of supports for families, households and businesses to help them cover energy bills amid the ongoing inflation crisis. There will also be a cost-of-living package introduced for students, as well as investment plans for education over the coming months.

Remote working and rural development are being invested in too, as part of the Government’s Our Rural Future and National Development plans. There will be a total of €390m allocated to rural and community development, building on projects for remote and hybrid regional workers such as Connected Hubs.

To complement its investment in rural development, the Government is putting aside €218m to progress the roll-out of the high-speed broadband network next year under the National Broadband Plan.

The State is promising that fibre broadband will be made available to an additional 80,000-85,000 premises in 2023. This is designed to help businesses and workers who rely on technology as part of their working lives.

Those working from home can expect a little help covering their energy bills, as the Budget is to provide a €600 electricity credit to ease the cost of energy bills this winter.

All Irish households regardless of whether their occupants work from home or not, will receive this credit. It will be delivered in instalments, with €200 due before Christmas and the remainder due in two separate batches early next year.

In order to protect jobs and dampen the effects of the energy crisis on businesses, the Government is providing up to €10,000 per business per month until spring 2023. This is part of its plan to help employers meet rising energy costs. The temporary scheme will support eligible companies, covering 40pc of the increase in their energy bills.

Criticism

However, critics have said the measures will not be enough to protect jobs. Damien McCarthy, CEO of Kerry’s HR Buddy said that the measures will only save “a small number of businesses” and a “small number of jobs”.

“The number one aim in a cost-of-living crisis should be to protect how people earn their living. For this reason, businesses needed more from this budget in order to survive and protect their workers’ jobs through this crisis. A support that only covers 40pc of an overwhelming problem is not going to save jobs. Employers will still be left with 60pc of the problem and that is only the energy costs problem. Businesses have many other rising costs outside of energy,” he said, adding that the temporary measures would “prolong the pain a while longer, but that’s about it”.

“The fact that the lower VAT rate is not being maintained beyond February is also going to be a huge blow and again put people’s jobs at risk,” McCarthy said.

Higher education supports

For those in higher education, the Budget will attempt to alleviate the pressure of the cost-of-living crisis with a range of temporary grants and supports packages. There will be a once-off €1,000 reduction in the undergraduate student contribution fee for higher education students eligible for the free fees initiative.

There will also be a once-off reduction of up to 33pc in the contribution fee for apprentices, as well as a once-off extra payment for all student maintenance grant recipients. Postgraduate students who qualify for SUSI grants will receive a once-off payment of €1,000, meaning their grant will increase from €3,500 to €4,500.

There will be a further €8m investment in the Student Assistance Fund for the 2022-2023 academic year and more once-off funding for the third-level sector to assist with rising energy costs.

The Government is investing in apprenticeships and skills training programmes in Budget 2023, also. It will provide funding for 4,800 additional apprenticeship places and 4,000 registrations. The State will provide more than 11,000 upskilling and reskilling opportunities for those sectors most impacted by Brexit and more than 2,000 Skillnet places in sectors such as sustainable finance, green-tech and climate.

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