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Rolls-Royce joins with Qatar to pump billions into green start-ups in UK

Rolls-Royce is joining forces with Qatar to build a science and engineering campus in the UK to develop green technology start-ups, as the aero-engine group seeks to accelerate its drive towards net zero.

The partnership would see the gas-rich Gulf state invest billions of pounds into the venture over the next 20 years, with the FTSE 100 company providing its manufacturing expertise and testing facilities, according to three people briefed on the talks. It could be unveiled as early as this week’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, said one person familiar with the talks.

While the exact details of the partnership still need to be finalised, the ambition is to build five green engineering “unicorns” — start-up companies valued at $1bn or more — by 2030 and up to 20 by 2040. Additional investment will be sought from external investors including venture capital funds.

“The Qataris are willing and able to invest. Given the climate crisis, you have to move at speed,” said the same person, comparing the plan to the government-backed network of catapult centres that link business and academia to develop research.

The commitment from Qatar, which would be through the state’s non-profit Qatar Foundation, would be one of the largest inward investment pledges into the UK since Brexit.

Qatar, the world’s richest nation in per capita terms and its top exporter of liquefied natural gas, is already a large investor in the UK and owns London’s Shard skyscraper, the Harrods department store and a large stake in supermarket chain J Sainsbury. Under the plans, which were first reported by the Sunday Times, Qatar would set up a sister campus in the state.

Rolls-Royce and the Qatar Foundation both declined to comment.

If the project goes ahead, the two partners would launch a feasibility study to find a site in England, most likely in the north-east or north-west. The study would be completed by the middle of next year.

For Rolls-Royce, the partnership is among a number of initiatives being pursued by the group as it seeks to convince investors that it can be one of the winners from the world’s push to combat climate change.

Along with other aerospace companies, decarbonisation is a huge challenge for the group. Before the pandemic, about half of Rolls-Royce’s then £15.4bn in annual underlying revenues came from its civil aerospace division, whose engines power some of the world’s largest aircraft.

The company would look to inject some of its own nascent climate change technologies into the centre with the aim of building them into viable businesses. One option, another person briefed on the matter, would be for Rolls-Royce to use it to accelerate ongoing research into direct air capture technology.

The group recently teamed up with an Australian research organisation to study what could be a cost-effective way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The project was among a number selected by the UK government earlier this year to enter a competition to provide funding for developing carbon capture technologies.

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