COMMENT: Scots tech firms must plug into global networks

Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood
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This Wednesday, former University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics stalwart, Dr Colin Adams, will be appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

It caps a remarkable career for Dr Adams, one that began as one of only four in the university’s first graduating class in computer science in what he describes as the “Dark Ages” of tech.

Colin’s career moved through a number of phases in main frames, mini computers, hardware and software and he was part of founding teams in global tech corporations on both sides of the Atlantic that raised tens of millions in venture capital and went up against fellow tech titans of the day like IBM and HP. In more recent times, he got involved in the start-up world and was a major force behind Informatics Ventures.

If you get the chance to hear Dr Adams speak, I thoroughly recommend it. He’s got a great slide that shows the start-up ecosystem in Edinburgh in 2006 – which pinpoints very little of note in tech start-up terms, just a couple early stage technology companies really – against the relatively epic tech cluster we now have in 2017.

Colin talks about having “tech vision”, “understanding markets” and “the importance of the team” and I feel privileged to have been part of one of his teams these last few years. One of Colin’s current gigs is being the Scottish connection for Founders4Schools, a Sherry Coutou-led initiative that connects business leaders with school children and students across the UK with the aim of producing a higher numbers of entrepreneurs down the line.

A select group of Scottish entrepreneurs rub shoulders with US equivalents and global trade and commerce figures this week at IoD Scotland, with the Scottish Business Network organising the inaugural Scottish International Week. The focus of the four-day event is on how Scotland-based businesses can build a better understanding of global markets and, importantly, how to go about accessing them.

Research indicates that relatively few Scottish businesses are fully exploiting the opportunities afforded by global markets and a 2014 report into the Scottish entrepreneurial ecosystem by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that a lack of “effective connections” is a critical issue for businesses looking to grow beyond indigenous markets.

Internationalising your business and accessing new markets can be part of a company’s strategy from day one. Think of training software startup Administrate, whose first major client win was in the Middle East, or FanDuel, TVSquared and Craneware, all Edinburgh-headquartered tech companies who export almost entirely to North America. Equally, we have start-ups in this country who are enabling larger tech companies to scale into new markets. Of course, a business can be a great success by focusing on its home market alone and “owning it”. Blackcircles.com became the number one online tyre retailer in the UK and, only recently following its acquisition by Michelin, is the brand being rolled out internationally.

Health tech start-up Care Sourcer, who have developed an innovative solution that matches care providers with those in need of care, is a newer kid on the tech start-up block in Scotland and has a massive UK market opportunity that means the founders don’t need to be thinking of international markets any time soon.

On Friday, an international crowd jets into Edinburgh for ScotChain17 at RBS Gogarburn and in its second year the event has already become one of the UK’s premier industry gatherings centred on emerging blockchain technology, an area where Scotland has an opportunity to gain global profile. However, a survey of UK executives by ScotChain17 organisers MBN Solutions published this week will show that we’re only now starting to understand this technology’s full potential.

(Nick Freer is a founding director of Full Circle Partners)