Nick Freer: A magical tech mystery tour to the Big Smoke

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Informatics Ventures, a public and privately funded organisation that supports Scotland’s technology entrepreneurs, held its third EIE London investor event at Canada House in London on Wednesday.

Through its ongoing EIE – Engage, Invest, Exploit – programme, the team has been mentoring Scottish start-ups and connecting them with investors across the globe since 2008 while being a springboard to more than £150 million in investment. Success stories associated with the EIE programme include FanDuel and Celtic Renewables.

This year’s select group of Scottish start-ups – drawn from EIE Scotland back in May – are Appointedd, Mallzee, My1Login, Shot Scope and Swipii. For the first time, the cream of Scotland’s start-up scene go up against tech talent from the rest of the UK and Europe. The 12 companies in total are pitching for £1.5 million and over, the so-called “series A” round of funding often associated with a tech start-up’s ambition to scale the business.

Day one – 07.22: The “battle bus” departs from Edinburgh’s School of Informatics – Europe’s top informatics school – with the Informatics Ventures team and five of Scotland’s top start-ups in situ. Destination London and the chance to meet and pitch to more than 100 UK and international investors. The pop-up canteen is fired up, the coffee flows and, for the moment at least, the promised on-board wi-fi is working – much to the relief of Informatics Ventures’ head of events, Ronnie Johnston. The magical mystery tour begins, although rather than The Beatles playing on the coach sound system, The Proclaimers belt out “500 Miles” as Scotland’s finest head south.

Day one – 12.17: Motorway service station stop somewhere in the drizzly north of England – who says it’s a glamorous existence in start-up world? Over a slightly better coffee than the beans being served on the coach, there is lot of chat about pitches and presentations and some of the key people from the investor world who are going to be at Canada House tomorrow. Later, when I catch up with Mallzee chief executive and co-founder Cally Russell, he gives me the rub on why EIE is so important for early-stage Scottish companies who want to conquer the world.

“What the guys at Informatics Ventures do that is so important is help tech founders get investor-ready and make connections with the top investors at home and abroad that can help fund a start-up’s next phase of growth,” he says. “In particular, the matchmaking service you get with Gordon, Danny, Colin, Ronnie and the team is unrivalled across the UK.”

Nick Freer

Nick Freer

Day one – 18.00: Drinks reception at Canada House, Trafalgar Square, hosted by the Canadian High Commission. Canadian province Ontario shares similarities with Scotland when it comes to its tech scene, with Toronto – like Edinburgh – a burgeoning hotbed of start-up talent rated alongside better-known US tech cities like New York and Chicago. Aaron Rosland from the High Commission says: “Ontario is second only to California in North America as a regional tech hub, illustrated recently when Cisco decided to set up an innovation centre in Toronto rather than in Silicon Valley. Like Scotland with London and Europe, we’re a bridge into the States but we’ve also got a thriving digital landscape in our own right.” An early night is had by most, if not all.

Day two – 12.30: After a busy morning setting up, EIE London is moving into full swing with a room full of investors including Scottish Equity Partners (SEP) and California’s Qualcomm meeting the tech founders and talking numbers, strategy and outlook. A survey carried out at the last EIE London event indicated that more than 80 per cent of London-based investors consider Scotland to be the most exciting tech start-up hub outside the UK capital. Stuart Paterson, a senior partner at SEP, which is one of Informatics Ventures’ newer corporate sponsors, chats to some of the young founders and fellow investors. SEP has garnered a reputation, partly on the back of its Skyscanner investment, as one of the premier venture capital firms in Europe.

Day two – 14.10: FanDuel co-founder Lesley Eccles takes to the stage to address the faithful on her own company’s rise from start-up to “unicorn”, with the firm becoming one of the world’s tech elite on the back of a recent funding round that valued the online fantasy sports site at more than $1 billion. FanDuel itself came through Informatics Ventures’ EIE programme and the founding team was formerly based alongside Informatics Ventures in the University of Edinburgh’s Appleton Tower. Eccles, who talks about how FanDuel works hard at retaining culture in a business that has gone from under 100 to over 500 staff in little over a year, says: “Informatics Ventures and EIE were incredibly supportive to us in the early days and when you look at Edinburgh today it is very exciting and deserves to be on the global map.”

Day two – 15.30: Renowned entrepreneur, angel investor and author of the 2014 UK benchmark review “The Scale-up Report”, Sherry Coutu delivers the next keynote speech to the gathered audience at Canada House. Coutu, on the advisory board at Informatics Ventures and a long-time supporter of the Scottish start-up community, explains how crucial scaling is for our young tech companies and the overall economic success of every nation. Coutu says scaling depends on backing the right team with the necessary funds to take the business to the next level.

FanDuel co-founder Lesley Eccles addresses the EIE London event. Picture: Jane Barlow

FanDuel co-founder Lesley Eccles addresses the EIE London event. Picture: Jane Barlow

“I just love what EIE is doing – so impactful”, she says. The head of the Scottish Investment Bank (SIB), Kerry Sharp, is up next. Before her address, Sharp talks to me about the “massive importance” of the EIE programme, “not just today but throughout the year”, and the ambition to turn Edinburgh into a “scale-up capital”.

A fellow colleague at Scottish Enterprise, director of high-growth ventures Eleanor Mitchell, joins the conversation by adding that our best young companies need capital to make the leap but that this shouldn’t present a big problem for our start-ups: “Scale-up is where it’s at and the quality we now have in Scotland is as good as, if not better than London and we’re only a short train ride or flight away for investors.”

Day two – 15.45: Chris van der Kuyl, chairman of Informatics Ventures’ advisory board and of Minecraft fame, takes what seems like an important call on the mobile. When we manage a word later with Chris, he espouses the importance of today and the heralding of Scotland’s place at the top table of tech. Already committed to Entrepreneurial Scotland’s (where van der Kuyl is also chair) mission to make Scotland the most entrepreneurial nation on the planet, it’s no surprise he is brimming with confidence about Scotland’s ability to compete in technology on the world stage: “As we look ahead to 2016, we’re in a position of unprecedented strength in the tech scene; by which I mean the whole ecosystem – the undergraduates, start-ups, growth capital, venture capitalists and right up to the scale-ups. Everyone has to buy into this – and I’m glad to say that is happening.

“So, you know, it wouldn’t be unexpected if the two unicorns we’ve got in the form of Skyscanner and FanDuel become five or ten over the next few years.”

Canada House on Trafalgar Square, the venue for EIE London

Canada House on Trafalgar Square, the venue for EIE London

Day two – 18.00: It’s time for a drink and a bit of networking and there is a real buzz in the air ahead of the pitch winners being announced. Over a glass of something white and bubbly, Dan Glazer of New York-headquartered law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP and a global Scot, says: “We have been working with high-growth Scottish tech companies for years. What we’re noticing is that the teams and the technology coming out of Scotland are getting better and better. Events like this are absolutely crucial so that the tech teams can meet investors and start to plot global expansion.”

That seems to be the overall message coming through today – that Scotland’s tech scene is no longer fledgling and that it really has arrived. The nail biting reaches a frenzy as the results come in, and the winner for best pitch is… Mallzee!

Day three – 09.05: There are a few hazy heads on the coach home but a real sense of achievement after the biggest and, by all accounts, best EIE London to date. Gordon, Danny, Ronnie, Nicola, Steve and Colin – the team behind Informatics Ventures – are already on to the next important date in the diary with entries closing at the end of this month for EIE Scotland, to be held next May. Ronnie Johnston, who is arguably the glue that binds the Informatics team together, says: “We don’t want our best young companies to miss out – days like yesterday show how much there is to be gained – so get the entries in, and quick!”

The Proclaimers are back on the CD player with “Letter from America.” There’s a message in here I’m sure. If yesterday demonstrated anything, maybe it’s around realising that Scottish tech can conquer America – and the world.

• Nick Freer runs the Freer Consultancy, where he advises many of the leading lights in Scotland’s tech scene including Skyscanner, CodeBase, pureLiFi, Administrate and Informatics Ventures