Britishvolt was meant to be the UK’s answer to Tesla. By 2024, it was supposed to be producing hundreds of thousands of lithium-ion batteries a year for the British automotive sector, and driving an industrial renaissance for the economically deprived northeast of the country.
Since its launch in 2019, the company had amassed nearly $2.5 billion in funding promises, including £100 million ($123 million) from the UK government, and preliminary deals to supply batteries to Aston Martin and Lotus.
But barely nine months after it broke ground on its “gigafactory” in Northumberland in August 2022, Britishvolt has gone into administration, the equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US. The majority of its 232 staff are being made redundant.
It’s a chaotic end to a startup that had enormous ambitions and was billed as a cornerstone of the UK’s electric vehicle industry. Its collapse has left staff, analysts, and policymakers scrambling to understand how it could have gone so wrong so fast, and what it means for the future of the UK’s battery business.
“In some ways, I am surprised,” one former employee, who left the company in December, tells WIRED, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The business had ambitious plans, and from the people I worked with, the knowledge and experience to execute them.”
Britishvolt was founded by Swedish entrepreneurs Orral Nadjari and Lars Carlstrom in 2019. Neither had experience in the electric vehicle space, but they approached the endeavor more like startup founders than industrialists by bootstrapping, and making bold promises of future growth.
“It was always going to be difficult,” says David Bailey, professor of business economics at Birmingham Business School in the UK. “They didn’t have a track record in technology development. They hadn’t secured all the funding needed to build out the factory for about £3.8 billion. And they didn’t have any big customers.”
But the company’s vision supported the UK government’s narrative of “leveling up”—supporting the development of struggling, often postindustrial, areas of the country.
Britishvolt’s factory in the northeast promised to create 3,000 new jobs, with another 5,000 in its supply chain. Announcing that the government would provide the company with funding in 2022, then-prime minister Boris Johnson called the facility “a strong testament to the skilled workers of the North East and the UK’s place at the helm of the global green industrial revolution.”
That government support was enough for car manufacturers like Lotus and Aston Martin to sign memorandums of understanding with Britishvolt in January and March 2022, to build the batteries that would go into their electric vehicles. It also brought in investment from industry: Large companies plowed cash into Britishvolt over successive funding rounds, investing an estimated £200 million, and promised more if the company met certain targets.
Najdari and Carlstrom stepped down in August 2022, after it emerged that Carlstrom had a conviction for tax fraud in Sweden. They were replaced by former Ford executive Graham Hoare, who became president of global operations.
By then, things were starting to falter. The company had built up a £3 million a month payroll and, in October, it announced it needed £200 million in emergency funding to tide it over until the summer of 2023, when it expected to receive its first orders from vehicle manufacturers. The UK government, which had promised £100 million once Britishvolt met certain construction targets, rejected a request for £30 million to ease the company’s cash-flow problems.
The former employee tells WIRED that making big promises, without necessarily being able to deliver on them, “was ingrained in the ethos of the company from the start.”
“Everything was about image rather than actual progress,” the former employee says. The company’s business plan was “build it and they will come.”
Even as it talked up its potential, the company was failing to book deals and build a sustainable supply chain. “I don’t know whether any prototypes were delivered to the likes of Aston Martin and Lotus,” says Bailey. “Britishvolt’s argument was it had great new technology and it would win customers. So far it hasn’t.”
The company sometimes acted like it was flush with cash. Britishvolt leased a £2.8 million mansion for executives to stay at while they visited the northern premises; the two founders, before they left the company, used to fly to and from the firm’s buildings via private jet. The Guardian reported that staff were given access to video-based yoga classes from a Dubai-based fitness instructor.
When they began working at Britishvolt, all of the company’s office-based staff were provided with 35-inch LG monitors and docks, which, combined, retail at nearly £900. “The spending on unnecessary things was far too high,” the former employee says, recalling that he was “very surprised” when the IT equipment arrived on his desk.
“I just think spending got out of hand,” he says. “The business got carried away with acting like a huge company, when in reality it was a startup that was not making money, and hemorrhaging money on wages. Really, it should have been more focused on generating some form of revenue or customer base before growing at the rate it did.”
A second former staff member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, says: “It’s a shame the company was mismanaged so badly. The people were let down, time and time again. The company has great people and technologies and has not been allowed to truly shine, owing to terrible leadership.”
The company was still courting investment—admittedly at a fraction of its prior valuation—just a week ago. One investor, who said she was in the process of launching a bid for the company, tells WIRED: “It’s madness, I have been offering a variety of possible solutions. [It] falls on deaf ears.”
Staff were told at a meeting at noon on January 17 that the company was being put into administration. The company’s PR team signed off to reporters with a brief email introducing the administrators and admitting they didn’t know what was next for their careers.
Britishvolt’s press department no longer exists, and the company could not be reached for comment.
It isn’t clear what will happen next to the company and its assets. Dan Hurd, partner at EY-Parthenon, the company brought in to oversee the insolvency and administration of the company, said in a statement that the administrator’s priorities are to protect the interests of the company’s creditors, explore options for a sale of the business and assets, and support the impacted employees.
The UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which backed Britishvolt so fervently a year ago, declined to provide an attributable statement.
Bailey says that administration is in some ways the worst possible outcome, as EY-Parthenon will be legally obliged to sell the business to recoup as much money as possible for its creditors. “That isn’t the same thing as saying, ‘Well, who would be the best investor for that site? And for the British battery building industry?’” he says.
The collapse is a blow for the UK’s desire to become a global leader in the EV business—which was already a tall order.
Had Britishvolt succeeded, the UK would still have accounted for only 0.6 percent of the world’s lithium-ion cell capacity by 2031, according to data from Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a price reporting and research company. “With Britishvolt gone, it’s down to 0.2 percent,” Simon Moores, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence’s CEO, says. “This data puts into stark reminder how the UK is not really a part of this global battery arms race.”
Across Europe, governments have plans to support the construction of 35 gigafactories by 2035. Italtvolt, founded by former Britishvolt cofounder Carlstrom, is planning a gigafactory in northwestern Italy, with construction slated to begin this year.
From the outside, the struggles at Britishvolt are “a lesson in putting the money into the ground and building a product, supply chain and end customer base first,” Moores says. “It’s a dent into the UK’s hopes of being an EV powerhouse any time soon.”