Scotland charges up global tech festival stage - Nick Freer comment

About a decade ago, I remember joining a quite sparsely attended get together in Edinburgh where, primarily young to middle-aged males phoned pizza in, guzzled a few beers and talked computer language.

Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart Attwood

Organised by academics, the developers in the room, guys who were building software and apps for a living, typically sported a good deal of denim, oversized t-shirts and hoodies, while unusual haircuts and facial hair were pretty commonplace.

Unsurprisingly, the term “tech meet-up” originated in the States and the Scottish equivalent took place primarily, like its more established American form, after working hours on a university campus. Fast forward ten years, and venues for these meet-ups have improved markedly to say the least. While Scotland’s universities continue to play a part, we now have a sophisticated tech incubator in CodeBase and upmarket co-working spaces like WeWork and Spaces.

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Scotland’s once fledging meet-up scene has also morphed into a string of internationally-recognised tech festivals that run throughout the year – with EIE, Turing Fest, Startup Summit and DataFest among the highlights. While Turing sprung from the founding team at CodeBase and Startup Summit was launched by a Bridge of Allan teenager in a Stirling schoolroom, EIE was founded by the Informatics Ventures team on the 8th floor of Appleton Tower at the University of Edinburgh.

Of course, academia and tech have been cheek by jowl since the beginning of the inexorable rise of the technology sector across the globe – think for example of the role Stanford University has played vis-a-vis Silicon Valley or the impact of Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Boston’s tech cluster.

Innovation

In the Scottish context, the University of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University and the University of Strathclyde are three universities who can claim to have strong credentials when it comes to tech, innovation, entrepreneurship and spin-outs. EIE (which stands for Engage Invest Exploit) is in fact much more than an one-off festival. The tech investor programme – EIE’s raison d’etre is to connect start-ups with investors who can help to fuel their growth ambitions – runs throughout the year with a focus on making company cohort as investor-ready as possible. Notable start-ups to have gone through the programme include FanDuel, Two Big Ears and mLED – only a few of the hundreds of EIE alumnus companies who have collectively raised over £700 million to date.

One of the interesting things for me around the 50 EIE20 companies selected to pitch this year, is the number of start-ups who are either locating operations or relocating wholesale to Scotland – it says something about how the Scottish tech ecosystem is starting to make the right waves outside its own borders.

I always think Scotland’s tech festivals do best when they mix indigenous tech talent with industry players from outside Scotland who can give our community here a perspective from larger, more established tech ecosystems – been there, done it, got the t-shirt etc. At the same time, lessons from, say Silicon Valley can sometimes be so far from the reality of busting a gut to get a start-up off the ground in Scotland that, at least for some, a northern Californian perspective doesn’t always translate to an early stage technology company in Scotland. For that reason, it’s great so see Blackcircles.com founder Mike Welch lined up for EIE20.

Welch noted last week: “Launching a start-up is not for the faint hearted. The setbacks, stress and isolation are enough to put most off! But if you get it right, the rewards can be so much greater than that achievable from a ‘normal’ job. A big part of getting it right is choosing a group of investors that you can develop a working relationship with.” It will be interesting to hear Welch expand on these themes at McEwan Hall in Edinburgh in April.

- Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners

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