Britishvolt was intended to be the British answer to Tesla. By 2024, it should produce hundreds of thousands of lithium-ion batteries a year for the UK’s automotive sector and power an industrial renaissance for the economically deprived north east of the country.
Since launching in 2019, the company had collected nearly $2.5 billion in funding commitments, 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 Britishvolt broke ground on its “gigafactory” in Northumberland in August 2022, Britishvolt has entered receivership, the equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US. The majority of the 232 employees are made redundant.
It’s a chaotic end to a startup that had huge ambitions and was heralded as a cornerstone of the UK’s electric car industry. The collapse has left employees, analysts and policymakers trying to understand how things could go so wrong so quickly and what it means for the future of the UK battery business.
“In some ways I’m surprised,” a former employee who left the company in December told WIRED, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The company had ambitious plans and the people I worked with had the knowledge and experience to execute them.”
Britishvolt was founded in 2019 by Swedish entrepreneurs Orral Nadjari and Lars Carlstrom. Neither had electric vehicle experience, but they approached the endeavor more like startup founders than industrialists by bootstrapping and making bold promises for future growth.
“It was always going to be difficult,” said David Bailey, a professor of business economics at Birmingham Business School in the UK. “They had no track record of technology development. They had not secured all the funding needed to build the plant at a cost of around £3.8 billion. And they had no big customers.”
But the company’s vision supported the UK government’s narrative of ‘leveling up’: supporting the development of struggling, often post-industrial areas of the country.
Britishvolt’s plant in the northeast promised to create 3,000 new jobs, with another 5,000 in the supply chain. Announcement that the government would fund the company 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 Lotus and Aston Martin to sign memoranda 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: big companies money plowed into Britishvolt over successive financing rounds, investing an estimated £200 millionand promised more if the company met certain targets.
Najdari and Carlstrom resigned 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 worldwide operations.