After watching one of my recent videos someone asked if I had anything good to say about the UK. If we’re talking about politicians or central bankers, the answer is a firm No! But, if we’re talking about entrepreneurs who defy all the odds to still achieve success in a country where the mediocre majority seems to have deleted that word from their vocabulary, my response is a resounding Yes! A brilliant example of this spirit is unfolding now in the harshest, most challenging environment that Britain has to offer. I’m talking about the island of Unst in the Shetlands. I was born in Aberdeen and raised on Tyneside so I regard myself as a Northerner.  But I’m positively equatorial compared to Unsters(?) who occupy the most northerly inhabited part of the Kingdom. All 635 of them.  If you were going to build a scalable, high value business this might not be the first location that springs to mind.  Unless you are operating in a very specific niche that is about as high tech as you can get – space travel.

Beaufort Private Equity is in the middle of raising growth equity for a Swiss company that owns an aerospace fund so this is a sector close to my heart at the moment. One of their board members and shareholders is Dennis Muilenburg, the former CEO of Boeing. When I interviewed him recently he said that he is more excited about developments in the aerospace sector in the 2020s than he’s been at any point in his 40 year career. With more and more satellites being launched and private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos accelerating the rate of progress, this is a big and rapidly growing sector that is going to need more and more places from which to launch its assets into space. Which brings us back to Unst and the SaxaVord Spaceport. If your ambition is to send a rocket into space, the obvious starting point is to own a gin distillery in the Shetlands. Enter husband and wife team Frank and Debbie Strang. SaxaVord is a 20 acre site used as a World War 2 air force base that became a radar tracking station during the Cold War. In 2004, presumably as part of the hubris after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the RAF decided to sell the site. The Strangs had both served in the RAF but that wasn’t the driver for acquiring the site –  they bought it with an eye to diversifying into green tourism for people wanting to see the dolphins and orcas that inhabit these waters.

They say that fortune favours the brave. In 2017 the UK Space Agency ran a competition to look for a spaceport that would be used in partnership with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin who were looking for a satellite launch site in Britain. The University of Leicester carried out a feasibility study for the UK Space Agency and the Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation and Space Technology.  The conclusion was that SaxaVord is the best possible site in the UK because it’s ideally positioned for access to polar orbit while the surrounding water gives a safe environment should anything go wrong. The sea space and air space around the site is very quiet and the surrounding cliffs give it a natural security.

So the positive news from the report cued a change of plan from the Strangs and the recruitment of a three man team to pursue their new rocket fuelled dream. However, their euphoria was swiftly followed by a punch in the stomach when the £23 million Lockheed funding was given to the competing Sutherland spaceport. In a scenario that is oh so familiar to Beaufort members, it was left to four hundred private investors to get the SaxaVord project off the ground, led by Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen who now lives in Scotland. Frank and Debbie have re-mortgaged their homes, used up their life savings and had to cope with bailiffs knocking on their door as they sacrificed everything to keep the project moving. They now have a team of 82 people, many of whom have worked for half wages or for free to keep the dream alive. Tell that to the civil servants, the railway workers and the junior doctors. Work has progressed for four years, interrupted by power cuts, blizzards and the occasional inquisitive sheep. Just getting materials on site is a massive logistical undertaking, while the island itself is covered in old war time buildings and land enclosures that date back to Viking times. To keep things moving during short winter days construction has continued in all-night shifts under floodlights. Add in the need for work to stop during May and June while endangered bird species are nesting and the need to build 12 soundproof underground chambers for otters and you start to understand just how challenging this has been. The company had to spend £9 million just to strengthen the roads to withstand the heavy cranes needed for the construction of the first three launch pads.

A total of £30 million has been invested to date and the first launch pad is now complete. Within a few weeks the team should receive a Civil Aviation Authority licence for the UK’s first ever vertical take-off launch. This maiden launch, expected this autumn, will be a sub-orbital flight followed next spring by a Pathfinder rocket launch on behalf of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

The amazing thing about this facility is that it has been built with almost entirely private funding and has progressed far more quickly than government subsidized programmes across Europe. Having lost the Lockheed funding to the Sutherland project, that site is progressing so slowly that the SaxaVord spaceport has now been chosen by Lockheed as its backup site. The delicious prospect for Frank and Debbie is that they will reach launch status ahead of Sutherland and other sites weighed down by the yoke of public funding.  Frank is not given to hubris and is quick to point out that 80% of initial rocket launches fail – the sector is still reeling from the failure of Virgin Orbit’s attempt in January which brought that company crashing into receivership.

The initial plan is for 30 launches a year, expanding to 50 as launch pads four and five are brought on stream. The facility will be able to handle rockets of up to 35 metres in length and is already attracting interest from German firm Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse. The new challenge for the Isle of Unst is how to accommodate all the tourists who will want to come and watch the rocket launches. There is one hotel, a handful of B&Bs and a solitary campsite. With the population having dwindled from 3,500 after the closure of the RAF base and the decline in oilfield work, young people are now returning as they see the potential of this unique facility. This revival is not the result of a multi-billion pound government initiative. It’s the result of a husband and wife team who don’t know when they’re beaten. Who refused to be cowed by the multitude of problems thrown at them by nature and technology. Who, despite no background in space technology, have hired the right team and pushed through every obstacle while focusing on their Super North Star.

Not only have the Strangs beaten the odds stacked against them, they’ve delivered ahead of all their UK and European competitors. Companies who initially ignored them have had to come back, cap in hand, asking to use their facility because it’s the only one that’s actually been delivered. How sweet that must feel. Sixty five year old Frank is a former RAF physical education instructor and the only vaguely relevant experience he’s had is being part of a consortium that ran Prestwick Airport. He’s in no doubt about how challenging the project has been and how satisfying it will be when that first launch takes place. “We’ve had to bite and scratch to get to where we are. We’ve had divorce, deaths, bailiffs, and almost bankruptcy. It’s almost killed me. My ashes are probably going up with the first launch. The launch is going to be two fingers up to the people who tried to put us out of business”.

We have a government that wouldn’t understand the entrepreneurial spirit of the Strangs if you tied them to that first rocket to launch from SaxaVord. That won’t stop them from turning up for the photo opps at the initial launch and dreaming up new ways of taxing outer space. Frank and Debbie, the entrepreneurs of Great Britain salute you. The question is, are there enough Franks and Debbies out there to overcome the Dead Hand of the Deep State. I fear we both know the answer to that question.