The Big Interview: Fiona Godsman, chief executive of the Scottish Institute for Enterprise

It was created in 2001 to help students in Scotland develop enterprise skills, uncover their entrepreneurial talent and start up their own ventures.

Fiona Godsman says the students are keen to deliver positive social impact rather than purely chase the bottom line  and are both willing to learn and bold. Picture: John Devlin

And to date Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE) has reviewed more than 3,000 early stage ideas for new businesses and products, seen more than 150 businesses formed, while SIE-supported ideas have gone on to raise more than £10 million in additional funding.

Success stories include Edinburgh healthcare tech start-up Snap40, founded by Christopher McCann, who was one of the Young Innovator Challenge winners in 2014 and was awarded the top prize of £10,000 at SIE’s New Ventures competition in 2015. The venture, which is focused on a wireless wearable device to monitor patients’ vital signs in real time, has raised more than £2m.

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There is also personal alarm specialist Pick Protection, set up by Rebecca Pick, who was an intern for SIE in 2013 and a winner of the 2014 Young Innovator Challenge competition. The start-up has gone on to attract seven-figure funding and seen its offering for lone workers pique the interest of Uber.

But SIE chief executive Fiona Godsman is looking for the Glasgow-based organisation, which is funded by the Scottish Funding Council and Scottish Enterprise, to significantly boost its reach, leading to a greater contribution to the economy by ventures it has helped create.

“We want to double what we’re doing at the moment. Our plans really are to reach a lot more students,” Godsman says. “We want to find a lot more people like the ones we’ve already found – and we want to give them that first step on the journey.”

SIE helps students grow ideas from the initial seed of inspiration, giving them a steer rather than insisting on business plans and scores of facts and figures. “We see them at the very start of their journey,” Godsman says.

As well as working with universities and colleges to deliver workshops, its key programmes include the Scottish Innovative Student Awards, in collaboration with three of Scotland’s innovation centres, which gives students the opportunity to tackle real-life challenges based on the big social and economic issues facing Scotland.

There is also I’m An Innovator, an annual competition asking students to submit business ideas with a social impact to vie for £3,000 in funding and ongoing support from SIE’s business advisers. And there is entry-level, monthly competition Fresh Ideas designed to help students develop business acumen and learn how to turn an idea into a real proposition.

Godsman tells of looking around a room filled with 70 students exploring their own business ideas. “Two or three of them are going to be real stars, but we don’t know who they are yet – and it’s not always about the best idea at that point in time.” If someone is serious about their idea, they will develop it and come back for more support, with such a development process “not overnight”, Godsman says. “And I think that’s one of the things that SIE does – it gives them that time and space to explore their idea before they become too public about it.”

Godsman says the students are keen to deliver positive social impact rather than purely chase the bottom line – and are both willing to learn and bold. “They’re a good group of people to be working with because they don’t think they can’t do it – they think they can’t do it yet but they will. I’ve learnt an awful lot from them because it’s a great attitude to have.”

A scientist by background, she moved into the pharmaceutical industry, and was in sales for several years followed by marketing.

She then moved into the biotech sector, providing her first taste of a real business environment and start-ups. Her roles included marketing manager at Q-One Biotech, a drug-testing firm founded by University of Glasgow academics that was later taken over by US rival BioReliance in a £42m all-cash deal.

Godsman, who is a member of Entrepreneurial Scotland, says she got “really quite immersed” in the start-up scene. She was a founding member of Scottish life sciences network Nexxus, and led it during its expansion.

She then got a phone call regarding SIE when she was working for herself as a consultant in biotech marketing. The enterprise-focused organisation was looking for a chief executive and saw that networking and experience of start-ups was a key part of its activity. “It was a leap that I made that I hadn’t really expected to – and that was about eight years ago.”

While her move from laboratory to office, covering marketing and entrepreneurship, may seem like distinct disciplines, she points out that she enjoyed both English and science at school. “I was a good communicator… I’m really interested in science but I found out very quickly that I didn’t like doing it.

“What I do now really is helping the next generation of businesspeople, but it’s networks and connections as well.”

She brings her own scientific know-how to entrepreneurs with relevant ideas, with the life sciences sector north of the Border employing more than 37,000 people according to the Scottish Government.

But SIE’s offering is non-specialist, and support initially takes the form of coaching, mentoring and signposting, building participants’ confidence. And she echoes the saying that when dealing with start-ups you bet on the jockey rather than the horse – the entrepreneur rather than their project. It is a question of identifying the people, she says, with some now doing “extremely” well after ditching their first idea.

Starting on the entrepreneurial journey young is a trend borne out by recent statistics from cloud accounting software company Xero, which found that 20 is the age that young business-owners (aged 18 to 34) decided they would like to set up on their own, compared to 35 among those aged 45-plus.

However, it also noted that only four in ten businesses reach their fifth birthday. Gary Turner, MD and co-founder of Xero, says: “Small business owners don’t always have an easy run of it. But, despite this, every day I see just how passionate and eager they are to turn their dreams into realities.”

Godsman says those determined to succeed are not deterred by the troubled economic backdrop, and SIE enables people to develop at their own pace. There are intensive accelerator programmes out there, she adds, “but we will work with people for a very long time before that and that is partly mindset development as well… it’s that gradual realisation that they can do it”.

When she started at SIE she encouraged angel investors to meet its young people, but was met with the response that it was too early to do so. “But now they come, because actually they know that people can progress really fast.”

One such example is Sydney Chasin who is behind Lil’POP, a healthy snack that uses a sorghum to produce an alternative to popcorn. Last year she scooped £1,000 of funding from SIE, and Godsman said the win gave her the confidence to enter more competitions and win further capital. The entrepreneur in December won £10,000 via the Scottish EDGE competition.

Godsman also mulls her own ambitions. “I want to see SIE flourish but I think we want to reach even more people.” As a board member of Glasgow Clyde College, she sees the huge ethnic and social diversity among its students. “There are some really smart people who have the ability, but might not actually have the confidence to take these first steps, so what I’d like to really do is continue to support the self-identified brightest and best but also to create these more opportunities for more young people coming through.”

Securing funding to scale up remains a challenge, she admits, but change is afoot and there is a strong community of start-ups in Scotland. “We have a really good story to tell. As more people outside of Scotland become aware of what’s happening, you will get more investment.”