Interview: Steve Ewing of Informatics Ventures

His roles prior to joining Informatics Ventures have covered academia, acting and working as an analyst, but Steve Ewing believes it is the latter that is now proving the most relevant in his current position as director of operations.

Ewings study of immunology encouraged him to enter the biotech sector during  the late Nineties boom. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Ewings study of immunology encouraged him to enter the biotech sector during the late Nineties boom. Picture: Stewart Attwood

The organisation supports Scotland’s ambitious technology entrepreneurs and he says that on a daily basis he draws on his previous experience of meeting management teams, “seeing the whites of their eyes” and assessing whether they came across as credible.

“It’s interesting how much you hear from investors that it’s the team that makes the difference. And that was absolutely my experience from six years in the City… you invest in the people.”

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Informatics Ventures, which launched in 2008, is behind Engage Invest Exploit (EIE), which describes itself as Scotland’s premier technology investor showcase connecting 60 Scottish tech firms with potential investors, partners and customers.

This year’s event, at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in May, hosted more than 200 investors and in excess of 250 start-ups, with more than £70 million being sought. Names presenting included Cally Russell of shopping app Mallzee and Rebecca Pick of personal safety alarm start-up Pick Protection, while Callum Murray, chief executive of Leith-based legal software specialist Amiqus, won Pitch of The Day.

Also featured in conversation were Duncan Logan, founder and chief executive of RocketSpace, whose alumni include Spotify and Uber, and Aberdeen Asset Management chief Martin Gilbert, who discussed his career and the firm’s £11 billion merger with Standard Life.

Ewing says EIE is the largest tech investor showcase outside London, “a flagship event for Scotland showcasing the best of Scotland’s tech, attracting amazing speakers and a significant audience”.

There were in excess of 800 attendees this year, “which was a significant achievement given that this was the first year we were transitioning to a pay-to-attend model”.

One of EIE’s first successes was Edinburgh-founded fantasy sports operator FanDuel, which has since achieved “unicorn” status as a tech firm reaching the $1bn valuation threshold. “We’re quite happy with that one,” says Ewing.

The success of that business and travel search engine Skyscanner, a fellow unicorn that was last year snapped up in a £1.4bn takeover deal by a Chinese peer, have certainly put Scotland’s tech sector centre stage.

Industry body ScotlandIS found in its 2017 survey of the tech sector that despite broader economic uncertainty, and the Scottish economy lagging behind the UK’s, 82 per cent of businesses expected sales to increase this year.

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And Ewing says the question is how to “fertilise the ecosystem with all that goodness in Skyscanner and FanDuel”, with investment the top priority for the firms it works with. The raison d’être of EIE is to get these companies investor-ready and so that’s why it’s a programme, not just an event on a day.

“We put them through their paces,” he continues, with the likes of investor-readiness workshops, investor events and pitch training.

The inaugural Scottish Start-up Survey from Informatics Ventures found 95 per cent of respondents said they require additional funding over the next 12 months, with 61 per cent seeking investment from angels and high-net-worth private investors.

EIE firms have in fact raised more than £400m of capital to date, but Ewing is also keen to highlight the importance of organic growth.

“Ultimately you’re only ever going to scale as a company if you can sell stuff, and that as a theme is beginning to come through. Investors are saying ‘we do want a company to do a really good investor pitch… but ultimately we will only invest if we think they’re going to get traction with customers.’”

Informatics Ventures is funded by Scottish Enterprise and the University of Edinburgh, where it has its headquarters, with capital also coming from the private sector. Ewing says its aim is to help Scottish tech entrepreneurs regardless of their location or stage of development.

It was initially buoyed by European Regional Development funding, and leveraged into the bigger commercialisation programme in the university’s pioneering School of Informatics, which covers subjects including artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

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Ewing explains that Informatics Ventures came about on the back of the proposal that embedding a commercialisation team in the school could “maximise the impact” of its world-leading research, for example 
in licensing technology to large companies.

“In 2008, Informatics Ventures as an entrepreneur ecosystem support organisation was pretty much the only game in town and we remain the only dedicated technology entrepreneur support programme in Scotland,” says Ewing.

“We were answering a very real need in Scotland’s nascent tech entrepreneur ecosystem to bring them together… but moreover to help [them] way back then to understand what it means to build a successful business.

“This isn’t a business school proposition, this isn’t an academic programme – this is about entrepreneurs learning from other entrepreneurs.”

His own arrival at the firm came after he fulfilled his ambition of going to drama school, then working as a professional actor for a couple of years.

However, questioning the viability of that career path and mulling over his financial future, he started applying for jobs, one of which was in business development at the School of Informatics.

He initially worked with academics on the likes of licences, intellectual property and company formation, subsequently moving over into the Informatics Ventures role.

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Ewing had originally studied immunology at the University of Glasgow, continuing his work in this area at the University of Oxford.

He then became a biotechnology and pharmaceuticals equity analyst, initially at small German lender WestLB Panmure, starting in 1997. The biotech boom was on the crest of the wave, while the Alternative Investment Market (Aim) had just launched. It was an “interesting, exciting” period, he says.

Then came a move to Deutsche Bank, and it amuses Ewing that he was told there that he’d gone “from the third division to the premier league”. This role also entailed his move back to Scotland, in August 2000.

Looking ahead, he says one of the biggest hurdles organisations will face is attracting the right talent, namely people who have started and scaled a firm, with uncertainty as Brexit unfolds a key factor.

Initiatives to unite these individuals with the companies who need them to grow are under way, he says, adding that the matter is among those under discussion with names like Gareth Williams, Skyscanner CEO.

The latter has been a participant in Informatics Ventures’ IV Tuesday events as has tech pioneer Dame Stephanie Shirley, who wrote business letters as Steve Shirley to avoid gender prejudice, and founded an IT business that is now part of the Sopra Steria Group.

Shirley is lined up as a keynote speaker for next year’s EIE event, and Ewing’s ambition for the conference, which has held offshoot events in London, is for it to “grow arms and legs such that unquestionably it becomes a globally recognised programme for investor readiness based in Scotland, serving Scotland’s technology entrepreneur ecosystem”.

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Also a target is maximising the organisation’s association with the “firepower” of the School of Informatics, where Ewing sees great potential for company formation and industrial engagement.

This ties in with an ambition to extend Informatics Ventures’ remit from companies at their earlier stages, “because you can’t have companies of scale if you don’t have companies starting”, to engaging with them later on in their progress.

And in coming years Ewing would like to see it “on a stable footing to sustain and strengthen the work we do, not only through EIE but through all the other initiatives we’re involved in to support Scotland’s technology entrepreneur ecosystem.

“I think we’re at a tipping point now — we were at the genesis of it and we want to remain very much at the heart of it going forward.”