Nick Freer: Diary of a tech trade mission to Bavaria

Fresh off the plane from Munich, Nick Freer reflects on a mission aimed at building links between Bavaria and Scotland's start-up sector.

Business minister Paul Wheelhouse with Barbara Dombay of support group BayStartUp. Picture: Nick Freer

Scotland now has more flights to Germany than ever before and we’re off to Munich, the capital of Bavaria – Germany’s largest and wealthiest state – with a delegation made up of Scottish Government officials, tech start-ups, entrepreneurs and industry bodies like Informatics Ventures and Scottish Edge.

A bit of preparation reading throws up some interesting facts about the city – it’s Europe’s number one information and communications technology hub, has almost a third of the constituents of Germany’s Dax stock index, has more private equity and venture capital companies than anywhere else in the country and its tech start-up companies have raised over €500 million (£452m) in investment over the last three years.

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Day one – 10.00: We’re starting of with a bang on a visit to IBM Watson’s global “internet of things” (IoT) headquarters. Twenty-six floors up you get a fantastic view back to the city and out over the great forests that surround Munich. We’re being looked after by IBM’s chief technology officer for Scotland, Douglas McGarrie, and a fellow IBM executive who is leading a project that will see state-of-the-art technology and over 1,000 people installed in Munich’s tallest building. MadeBrave founding director Andrew Dobbie, whose creative agency counts IBM as a client, storms through his presentation before we head off on our whistle-stop tour of one of the most successful tech ecosystems on the planet. I manage a word with one of the senior Invest in Bavaria team in the lift who grins like a Cheshire cat when asked how pleased he must be to have convinced IBM to build its first divisional headquarters outside the US in Munich.

Nick Freer says Scotland stands to benefit from stronger economic ties with the 'European powerhouse' of Bavaria. Picture: Contributed

Day one – 12.30: We’re greeted by a friendly dog and its owner, Cristina Mann, at our next series of meetings at MTZ, one of the most highly-rated tech incubators around and run by Mann. Over 100 companies are based at the public-private partnership initiative at MTZ, many of whom spun out of some of the large corporates that are headquartered in the city – groups like Siemens, Audi and Linde. Barbara Dombay of support group BayStartUp explains that the characteristics of a classic Bavarian start-up are very different to our own in Scotland – most here are only founded when they have secured a big customer to pay the bills, and she opines that this says something about the relative lack of risk in the profile of a typical start-up founder in Germany’s most southern state. What is certain is that the Bavarian formula is paying off – over 50 of the firms that BayStartUp works with have raised a collective €70m already in 2016.

Day one – 14.15: I grab a word with Scotland’s minister for business, innovation and energy, Paul Wheelhouse, as the MTZ session wraps up. Wheelhouse had spent a bit of time with a local clean energy start-up founder after lunch and seemed enthused about the opportunities already emerging for shared activity down the line between Scotland and Bavaria. The minister talks about how inspiring the tech mission has been so far, how impressed he has been at the range and depth of innovation in the Bavarian economy, how some of the technologies on show at MTZ could meet the challenges on our own business landscape and how he hopes there will be opportunities for our Scotland’s start-ups to sell into Bavaria.

Day one – 15.05: The team jumps on the bus to the next engagement – a series of meetings at the Centre for Digital Technology & Management, a joint venture between two of Munich’s universities and Boston’s MIT. Again, Bavaria has “top trumps” status when it comes to the university sector and, later, I somewhat flippantly ask a student if there is anything they don’t do well in this corner of the world. She shrugs her shoulders and gives a wry smile. I remark that in Bavarian-born Professor Harald Haas, co-founder of University of Edinburgh light technology spin-out PureLiFi, we have “one of their own” building world-beating tech out of Scotland’s capital and I feel like I’ve won a small victory. It’s hard to imagine that LiFi – which powers the internet using off-the-shelf LED bulbs – won’t be installed in the IBM Watson headquarters in the near future, particularly when you consider that the products being developed and commercialised by Professor Haas and his team could be a major enabler of the IoT and the advent of 5G.

Day one – 17.55: Arriving early in downtown Munich, I end up hauling a beer crate round the corner with one of the British Consulate General team, who are jointly hosting a reception with Munich council – in a city famed for its beer and Oktoberfest having just wound down, it’s hard to imagine someone forgetting the brown, frothy stuff. The word “Brexit” hadn’t been uttered on the trip until now, but I note it is mentioned over a dozen times over the following half hour or so. The head of investment partnerships for the city of Munich moves off the subject and discusses the double-edged sword that has seen city centre property prices spike; in no small part due to the trend for large indigenous and international technology companies moving in to satisfy young workers who want to be in the thick of a modern, urban environment. I get chatting to Marco Flasch from Bayern International, the export agency for the region, about not forgetting to buy presents for the family when you go on a business trip. Flasch should know, as he has already been on multiple trips to South America and Asia this year. I ask him which country he’s most excited about at the moment and am interested to hear it’s Azerbaijan. The good news for Scotland is that there are plans afoot to make tracks to our major cities in 2017. He would love to see a Celtic game when he is over and I quickly compute that I know a man who can sort that one out.

BMW's Munich headquarters hosted the delegation from Scotland. Picture: Uwe Lein/AP

Day one – 20.00: We roll, rather wearily it has to be said, into Munich restaurant Spatenhaus and are seated upstairs looking out onto the magnificent Max-Joseph-Platz, resplendent in the artificial lights. With a glass or two of German red wine and a meaty plate of the best local fare, we come back to form and all agree it’s been a great day. David Scrimgeour MBE, who has resided in Munich for over two decades, sits at the head of the table. You have to hand it to David, who was the genesis of the trip – a “mission” in the true sense of the word and one punctuated with an extremely high standard of engagements that are only set to rev up the next day.

Day two – 06.15: An early start as we’re announcing a record seed funding round for a Scottish start-up this morning – Christopher McCann-led health tech firm snap40 – so it means I’m going to miss the first fixture of the day at BMW HQ. Not such a big deal until I see a fleet of Series 7 saloons arrive to take the delegation out to the north of the city – a special service laid on by the powers that be at BMW. The Scottish party slide off into the morning mist and to what everyone describes later as massively inspiring talk from a main board director in the boardroom looking out over Munich’s Olympic stadium. The excitement is plain on the face of Anthony Ashbrook, chief executive and co-founder of Machines With Vision, a start-up developing autonomous driving software and based at Edinburgh’s CodeBase technology incubator. He has a couple of breakout meetings planned in the afternoon with the BMW team. Remembering my chat with Marco from Bayern International, when I finally get out to BMW I make my first stop the visitors’ shop to buy a replica toy car for my youngest.

Day two – 15.00: The Bavarian State Ministry for Economic Affairs is the final stop on our 48-hour visit to this incredible city. We get some more facts and figures – Bavaria, with a population of 12.5 million and a GDP of around €500 billion, is one of Europe’s most successful regions. Having seen what this place has to offer, it’s pleasing to know that Bavarian economics minister Ilse Aigner has said to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that she wants to continue and deepen the dialogue for the mutual benefit of both countries. When I’m chatting to Bruce Walker from WeAreTheFuture (just look up his story if you want evidence that young people in our country are doing amazing things in entrepreneurialism in 2016) and the buzz about the group is that a number of partnerships between Bavaria and Scotland have already been discussed and, in one case, a whole new venture may just have been born.

Day two – 17.00: There is a really nice touch as the event draws to a close when minister Wheelhouse is presented with a bottle of Bavarian whisky, an award-winning dram that I end up sampling myself later that night when I’m back at home in Edinburgh having picked up a bottle in duty free. Having seen Bavaria at work for a couple of days my expectations are high, even for a nation certainly not known for its whisky distilling, and my gut instinct is right as the amber nectar goes down very nicely indeed – these Bavarians really are good at everything!

Nick Freer says Scotland stands to benefit from stronger economic ties with the 'European powerhouse' of Bavaria. Picture: Contributed

Day two – 23.20: In the taxi home from Edinburgh Airport, I think back to a remark David Scrimgeour made over dinner the night before. Bavaria, David says, has a lot of affection for Scotland and a big emotional connection when you consider that Edinburgh and 16 other Scottish cities and towns are twinned with Bavarian counterparts. What a wonderful head start that gives us in Scotland – if we can build stronger economic ties with this European powerhouse on the back of it, this could be something that benefits us all.

• Nick Freer is the owner of the Freer Consultancy and advises many of the leading lights on Scotland’s technology scene

BMW's Munich headquarters hosted the delegation from Scotland. Picture: Uwe Lein/AP