SEVEN years ago, Carlos Eduardo Espinal came to the UK as a “highly-skilled migrant” with a background in engineering and an MBA from Babson College in the United States.
Now ranked by various polls as one of Europe’s most influential digital leaders, he pegs Scotland’s capital as an up-and-coming ecosystem for technology start-ups.
“Edinburgh is definitely at the tipping point of initial momentum,” says the founding partner of Seedcamp, the London-based start-up fund representing more than 70 investors from across Europe. He was in town for last week’s so-called Mini Seedcamp, a joint event with tech hub CodeBase aimed at uncovering the next wave of fledgling talent.
Although Espinal has been coming to Edinburgh for several years as a guest at CodeBase founder Jamie Coleman’s Turing Festival, this was Seedcamp’s first official foray north of the Border. A total of nine pitched for support in what was labelled as “an on-going collaboration to support start-up companies and help them scale”.
Since its launch in 2007, Seedcamp has invested in about 120 start-ups found through visits to more than 70 cities around the world. As a result, Espinal has done plenty of travelling, and has a good idea of what it takes to create a thriving tech ecosystem.
Access to talented staff is one of his primary tenets, so the quality of education at hand is paramount. A growing ecosystem must also be able to import skilled workers, which brings Espinal to the thorny issue of immigration.
“I understand that there are a lot of factors involved, and there are many sides to the argument, and that the local population tends to take a protectionist slant towards employment opportunities,” Espinal says. “But I come at it from a very pragmatic point of view.”
Widespread immigration reform would help companies as they expand internationally, Espinal says, while smaller firms still operating in local markets also need access to highly-trained staff.
“Clearly, there is a lot of talent coming from universities that is not graduating with a passport from the country where they went to university. The question is how do you keep someone with a good idea – how do you make the process easier so there is no brain drain?”
A visa for “post-study work” by foreign students who had completed their courses was withdrawn by the UK government in 2012, leading to a surge in applications for the “entrepreneur” visa available to those with £50,000 to invest in starting their own business.
But allegations of widespread fraud in the entrepreneur scheme came to light last month, leading ministers to tighten up requirements for that visa. This has added to worries that the UK is increasingly closing its door to the “best and brightest” from abroad.
Research released last month shows that range of curbs on working migrants brought in since 2010 has resulted in a 39 per cent drop in recruits from outside Europe. However, those coming from within the European Union are on the up, with net migration now at 212,000 – more than double the target of “tens of thousands” that Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hit before the next election.
In Scotland, independence campaigners have promised to reintroduce a post-study work visa in the event of a vote for independence next month. Scottish universities host more than 45,000 students from overseas every year, including more than 28,000 from outside the EU. Despite all the political wrangling, Espinal says the UK has in many ways led in innovation on migration. While the policies may change, there is at minimum a tacit recognition of the need for talent from abroad.
“I applaud the UK government for thinking about these things,” he says. “It would be great to see more of that across Europe.”
Having arrived himself on a UK visa programme, Espinal gained his British citizenship earlier this year. It has by no means, however, been his first venture abroad.
Born in Honduras the son of a telecommunications engineer, his family spent time in Thailand, Venezuela and Mexico before the young Espinal was sent, at the age of 15, to Woodberry Forest, an all-male boarding school in Madison County, Virginia. From there he went on to study engineering management at Carnegie Mellon University before landing his first job as an engineering consultant with internet security specialist Baltimore Technologies.
He then spent three years as an engineer with Securities Industry Automation Corporation, a subsidiary of the NYSE Euronext exchange operator.
Following time out for his MBA at Babson, he then landed in the UK, where his brother-in-law was starting up a drinks business.
Espinal decided to stay on and was granted leave to do so, and soon thereafter landed a job with London-based Doughty Hanson, a venture capital group specialising in technology start-ups. It was one of the original investors in Seedcamp, paving the way for Espinal’s transition.
It all could have been quite different, however, had it not been for the highly-skilled migrant visa scheme that has now been phased out.
“I came here because of how the UK immigration policy allowed me to come here,” he says, “and I applaud that. It has made a big difference in my life, and immigration policy can make a difference in other people’s lives and businesses as well.”
30 SECOND CV
Born: Honduras, 1976.
Raised: Honduras, Thailand, Venezuela, Mexico, the US.
Education: Woodberry Forest Boarding School; Carnegie Mellon University; Babson College, Massachusetts.
First job: I worked in a plant in Mexico, it was like a factory for the insides of cars, and I would load up wires into a trolley and take them to the assembly line.
Ambition at school: That was before the internet took off, so my concept of what I would be doing wasn’t like anything I am doing now. I can’t remember exactly, but I know at one point I wanted to be a doctor.
Can’t live without: The serious answer is my glasses, oxygen, all that kind of stuff. The not-so-serious answer is some of the social things I do on my iPhone, because I travel a lot.
Kindle or book: Kindle.
Favourite city: That is a tough one – can I pass?
What do you drive? I don’t drive.
What makes you angry? I can’t remember the last time I was really angry, but what is frustrating is the difference between promises and action.
Best thing about your job? The amount of smart people I get to work with and learn from – that is the best.