Nick Freer: Diary of a tech CEO summit in Berlin

Nick Freer reports on last month's FutureX-Entrepreneurial Scotland Berlin Summit, a CEO leadership programme that ran alongside Tech Open Air in the German capital.

From left: FutureX co-founder Adam Purvis, Amiqus CEO Callum Murray, Entrepreneurial Scotland's Emma Watson Mack, performance coach Jiro Taylor and FutureX Berlin programme designer Laura Westring at the Brandenburg Gate. Picture: Contributed

Day one – 08.00: We meet up with Paul Reid at Edinburgh Airport. Paul is the former CEO of Sigma Seven, the mobile mapping software specialist acquired by Capita in 2015, and more recently co-founded Augmentors Partners, an advisory firm supporting high-growth tech companies in Scotland. It’s the first time Paul, my colleague Laura Hamilton and I have been on one of the international trips organised by WeAreTheFuture or Power of Youth, the two companies that recently merged to form FutureX, but we’ve heard great things and are excited to meet the team and fellow participants in a few hours’ time.

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Day one – 13.00: After practising my shoddy German mid-flight on the Babbel app – a canny Scottish Equity Partners investment – we touch down at Schönefeld Airport and grab a taxi into Berlin, a sprawling metropolis with a population of almost four million and home to the annual Tech Open Air festival that draws over 20,000 people to the city every July. Having recently taken over the reins at Appointedd, an interim role at the online appointment booking tool for the duration of founder Leah Hutcheon’s maternity leave, Paul deals with a couple of calls back to the office in Edinburgh and Laura and I discuss a client announcement we’re handling later in the week. Business out the way, Google Maps shows we’re now nearing the centre of Berlin and our digs for the next few days.

The FutureX and Entrepreneurial Scotland delegation visit a section of the former Berlin Wall. Picture: Contributed

Day one – 17.00: Refreshed and ready for action, we meet the rest of the gang at our hotel and head out to a German beer hall for dinner to get to know each other better, sample some local cuisine and hear about the plan for the next few days. There are a few familiar faces and plenty of new ones and we agree over a splendid vegan spread that Berlin has a definite big city feel and, in the industrial quarter we’re in, it almost feels like being in New York. When it’s my turn to buy a round from the bar with my pigeon German at the ready, it turns out the barman is from Glasgow so we have a laugh about that before making tracks back to the hotel.

Day two – 09.30: The sun is splitting the sky as we assemble in Köllnischer Park, named after Cölln, one of the two cities that came together to form Berlin and is famed for having been home to bears – the animal that symbolises the city. We get paired up – myself with a Melbourne-based CEO called Jiro – to discuss the values we think we live by. It’s quite an intimate session and we’re encouraged to be as candid as possible. Jiro is a fascinating guy, with a great life story and I feel like I’m already learning things from him right off the bat.

Day two – 12.30: Over a Prussian sausage platter at traditional German restaurant Zur Gerichtslaube, I talk to some of the FutureX team about what they’ve been up to recently. Adam Purvis, Bruce Walker, Laura Westring and Paul McMillan, the four main FutureX people in Berlin, have been working on projects across Europe and as far away as San Francisco and India. They work with corporates, entrepreneurs and governments to support what can be described as the evolution of values-driven ecosystems that deliver impact – in economic, environmental and social terms. It’s noble and important stuff so no surprise they’ve attracted such an eclectic and impressive bunch of UK and international business leaders. Bruce, who doubles as the CEO of WeAreTheFuture, has also been busy planning this year’s Startup Summit and is excited to be on the verge of announcing this year’s keynote speakers, including the CEO-founder of a rather well-known craft brewer.

The FutureX and Entrepreneurial Scotland delegation visit a section of the former Berlin Wall. Picture: Contributed

Day two – 14.30: Laura Westring leads us from the U-Bahn underground station to a section of open ground in what used to be East Berlin. She gets us to close our eyes and put a hand on the person in front of us, before we make our way down a gravel path in the afternoon drizzle. When we’re finally told to open our eyes, we’re standing directly in front of a section of what had been the Berlin Wall, the concrete barrier that divided East and West Berlin between 1961 and 1989. It’s a chilling moment and one that will live long in the memory. After a few minutes of quiet contemplation, we discuss our first impressions of being at this historic site and how it relates to the world we live in now.

Day two – 16.00: Callum Murray, founder and CEO of Amiqus, the legal tech start-up that recently appointed Sir Sandy Crombie as chairman, and I take advantage of some downtime to get out for a run around central Berlin. Callum is training for a charity rowing event between Barcelona and Ibiza so is squeezing in training whenever possible. We chat while we’re running about the importance of getting away from the daily grind and experiencing new places and challenges. Callum has been embedded in the FutureX network for quite a while now and, like several people I’ve spoken to on this trip, credits the FutureX team for the role they have played in his own professional and personal development. We’re only 24 hours in but I already feel like this is an organisation I want to be part of too.

Day two – 18.00: Back on the U-Bahn, our next port of call is The Factory, a former brewery and now the uber-cool tech campus that has produced many of the city’s most successful start-ups. Berlin’s start-up scene continues to make a name for itself on the world stage, building on its more recent success stories like Rocket Internet and Zalando with firms scaling up in sectors including artificial intelligence, fintech, digital health and mobility. I have a chat with Emma Watson Mack from Entrepreneurial Scotland on the way into The Factory and we agree it’s already been a fantastic day.

Day two – 19.00: A number of start-ups, from Berlin and from our Scottish contingent, are pitching this evening and it’s great to see Colin Hewitt, CEO and founder of Float, up on stage and “knocking it out of the park” according to a Dutch developer standing next to me. The founder of a German fintech start-up that is building a virtual bank offering for refugees is up next, followed by a Somalian founder who is developing a technology platform that trades goats and other livestock, helping to alleviate seasonal poverty for the herdsman in his country of birth. We chat over a couple of beers when the pitching wraps up and the CEO of a Kiev-based mobile development firm comes over to ask if we might be able to support him on UK PR.

Day two – 22.00: A few of us hit the Turkish quarter of Kreuzberg in search of what are supposed to be the best kebabs this side of Istanbul. Nadeem Sarwar, CEO and founder of Glasgow-based Organised Health and James McIlroy, CEO at Aberdeen-headquartered EnteroBiotix, two of our most highly rated health tech start-ups, shoot the breeze about our Berlin experiences so far, how business is coming along and how we’re going to get together again soon back in Scotland. MadeBrave founding director, Andrew Dobbie, flies into Berlin tomorrow to join the team for the rest of the programme and a text comes through from him giving me grief for having to leave before he arrives. Nadeem makes a remarkably good case for me delaying my flight home, we check out some flights, but my sensible head takes over before hitting the booking button.

Day three – 07.30: I make an early call to Robin Wauters, Brussels-based editor of tech news website tech.EU. We’ve not managed to meet up as planned in Berlin but he’s now flying over to Edinburgh the following week to research the Edinburgh tech ecosystem and meet a few of its key players – Skyscanner, University of Edinburgh School of Informatics and pureLiFi included – so I suggest Laura Westring and I take him out for dinner when he’s in town. Laura spent a few years in Brussels and it will be a good chance for her to tell Robin all about FutureX.

Day three – 08.30: I feel quite emotional as the group and I part after breakfast – they are off to do a session in one of Berlin’s public parks before visiting some of the city’s memorial churches and the Brandenburg Gate and for me it’s a taxi back to the airport. Reflecting on my time in this fascinating city, I feel lucky to have met so many great people, some that will now be friends for life.

I’ve learned a great deal and I’ve got a nice, fuzzy feeling about having found a group of like-minded folk that make me feel more optimistic about what the future holds; whatever that future may be, with all the x factors along the way. Let’s call just call it FutureX!

• Nick Freer is founding director of the Freer Consultancy