Interview: entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter on the return of his ScaleupScotland2.0 bid to help create £100m Scots firms

Scottish business tycoon Sir Tom Hunter underlines the high-reaching aims of his philanthropic foundation’s ScaleupScotland2.0 initiative that is back for its sophomore year to create stratospherically successful scaled-up firms and bolster the economy.

The Hunter Foundation (THF), in partnership with the Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB) has just opened applications for its target of highly ambitious, scaling businesses to join the next cohort – aiming to create more £100 million-plus native firms, and even £1 billion-plus “unicorns”.

The bid for the maximum of 12 firms set to be selected is that they “grow quicker, with less risk, take on people, create the jobs, pay their taxes – that will make Scotland a better place, it’s simple as that,” Sir Tom tells The Scotsman regarding the initiative that he deems “a learning journey of unparalleled opportunity”.

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Participant companies must be headquartered in Scotland with current revenues typically in excess of £20m and a record of strong year-on-year growth, with Scaleup2.0 looking to help them turn over at least £100m within five years.

The chief executive and executive leadership teams of firms selected will collaborate with peers to “supercharge” their upward trajectory over 12 months starting this January. During the year they attend quarterly overnight events for inspiration and action including masterclasses and focused dinners at THF base Blair Castle & Estate, as per the last cohort.

How hands-on is Sir Tom, who established “venture philanthropy” focused THF in 1998 after selling Sports Division for £290m? “I actually love doing it, so I have turned up at Blair for the dinners – whether they like it or not, I’m there,” he jokes. “I find myself energised after the sessions, it’s great… after speaking to these guys about their businesses, it's just fantastic.”

ScaleupScotland2.0 aims to tackle what it sees as a lack of strategic support available to high-growth businesses. This year’s cohort have been supported and inspired by a range of entrepreneurial experts Sir Tom has met over the course of his career, people “who've inspired me and I want to give these entrepreneurs a chance to meet them and hopefully get the same inspiration that I got from them”.

On the list are returnees including Kristian Tapaninaho of pizza oven firm Ooni, oil and gas veteran Bob Keiller, endurance cyclist and investment exec Mark Beaumont, Calum Paterson of Scottish Equity Partners, and Professor Sir Christopher Evans of drug discovery company Ellipses Pharma. The latter in the first year of the initiative “really went down well with all the founders who were there – I think they were really inspired by his story, by what he's doing, and the way he goes about it”, says Sir Tom.

'This is exactly how I want to spend my money, trying to help these businesses,' says the multi-millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist. Picture: contributed.'This is exactly how I want to spend my money, trying to help these businesses,' says the multi-millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist. Picture: contributed.
'This is exactly how I want to spend my money, trying to help these businesses,' says the multi-millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist. Picture: contributed.

Also returning this year to support ambitious founders is Willie Watt, chairman of the SNIB (which has just announced a £2.6m investment into cybersecurity expert Cyacomb). He comments: “The ScaleUpScotland2.0 programme aligns with the Bank’s missions. Ensuring that scaling businesses can access the support and guidance they need to sustain their growth brings productivity gains, high-value job creation, and the power to transform our economy.”

New additions to the list of experts this year include Theo Paphitis of Dragons’ Den; Kim Perdikou, Global Scot non-executive director; Carolyn Jamieson, chief trust officer at Trustpilot; Ruth Chandler, board and executive advisor at Skyscanner; Lisa McPherson, group people director of City Facilities Management; Mike Reid, founder of Frog Capital; Yvette Hopkins, US Army Veteran, angel investor, and Global Scot non-exec director; and Mark Logan, chief entrepreneurial advisor to the Scottish Government.

The group is overall more diverse than last time round when just one woman was announced – Darina Garland of Ooni. Sir Tom now says: “Every female entrepreneur I speak to says, ‘I don't want to be [chosen for something] just because I'm a woman, I want to be there because I'm a great entrepreneur’.”

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He also defends another element of the initiative scrutinised last year – its £10,000 fee for participants. He in fact states that it is now £11,000, covers some of the costs, and adds that no participating firm in the last cohort had an issue with it, with everyone has asked instead saying “of course it's not a problem, it's amazing value”. The package of support has been estimated to be worth more than £50,000.

Sir Tom with Dragons' Den star Theo Paphitis. Picture: contributed.Sir Tom with Dragons' Den star Theo Paphitis. Picture: contributed.
Sir Tom with Dragons' Den star Theo Paphitis. Picture: contributed.

One of the existing Scaleup2.0 cohort, Richard Madden of Edinburgh-headquartered WeConnect Energy, brands the programme “a pivotal catalyst in our business growth journey, elevating our aspirations with an unparalleled network of trusted advisors and motivational speakers, forging invaluable links with fellow CEOs, and providing a gateway into the flourishing landscape of scalable Scottish businesses."

Fellow existing participant Scott Smyth​, founder and group chief executive of Glasgow-based Soben, which has just been named the UK’s fastest-rising construction consultant, adds: “StartupScotland2.0 has provided access to a new network of world-leading entrepreneurs and business advisors that are already positively impacting the growth of my business. In addition, I have got to work with and learn from an amazing cohort of other ambitious entrepreneurs.”

ScaleupScotland2.0 follows other THF-backed initiatives such as a Pre-Scaler programme also driven by Scottish Edge that earlier this year said demand was so high that it was doubling the number of cohort programmes.

As for learnings on the operational side from the last ScaleupScotland2.0 cohort, Sir Tom says the type of founders it unites is key. If THF gets that right, “then the founders get so much more out of it”. He also states: “The only way to move the economic dial in Scotland is to deliver far more scaling businesses, and our portfolio of pre-scaler, scale-up core and scaleup2.0 joins the dots up to deliver some of that ambition – so I’m delighted to host and sponsor 2.0.”

And how does ScaleupScotland2.0 tie in with his philanthropic goals? “This is exactly how I want to spend my money, trying to help these businesses, which can help Scotland. And I'm having fun, so it couldn't be any better.”



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