Who could be the next Scottish tech unicorns?

Analyst Nick Freer reflects on some Scottish tech success stories, and looks ahead to one of the biggest business networking days of 2017.

Left to right are Colin Hewitt of Float, Eleanore Irvine of Biogelx, Steve Ewing of Informatics Ventures and Susanne Mitschke of MindMate
Left to right are Colin Hewitt of Float, Eleanore Irvine of Biogelx, Steve Ewing of Informatics Ventures and Susanne Mitschke of MindMate

It has been another incredible year for the Scottish tech scene, one of the most exciting sectors of Scotland’s modern economy. Two of the leading lights – Skyscanner and FanDuel – broke through the billion dollar valuation mark in recent times to breathe the rarefied air saved for so-called ‘unicorns’ before completing mergers and acquisitions with industry players in China and the US.

FanDuel, the fantasy sports site whose fearless founders weathered legal challenges and guided the startup through a merger with US competitor DraftKings in 2016, only came into existence in 2009 – pivoting from its previous incarnation, HubDub – which in itself illustrates how fledgling tech startups can scale into global organisations in a relatively short amount of time.

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FanDuel is one of the many success stories to come out of Informatics Ventures’ ‘Engage Invest Exploit’ (‘EIE’), which has been the premier support programme for Scotland’s technology entrepreneurs since 2008. FanDuel’s co-founders met at an EIE event, shared office space with the Informatics Ventures team at Appleton Tower in Edinburgh and FanDuel the product was seen by investors at EIE in the city’s Assembly Rooms in 2010.

Last year, audio virtual reality (VR) specialist Two Big Ears, founded in Edinburgh by Indian duo Varun Nair and Abesh Thakur and a regular fixture at EIE, was acquired by Facebook and the guys now sit a stone’s throw from Mark Zuckerberg as part of the social media giant’s Oculus team in Menlo Park, California.

Also last year, EIE16 pitch winner MindMate, the Glasgow-headquartered startup that develops apps for dementia sufferers was invited onto the world’s leading tech accelerator, Techstars NYC, and is now making inroads into the largest healthcare market on the planet. EIE14 pitch winner, University of Strathclyde spin-out Biogelx has gone global while cash flow forecasting startup Float is one of the brightest stars on Scotland’s fintech scene – just to name a few from the EIE’s fast-growing alumni network.

Susanne Mitschke, CEO and co-founder of MindMate, puts her finger on the role Informatics Ventures plays in Scotland’s tech ecosystem: “Informatics Ventures is truly unique in Scotland because it is one of those rare organisations that really promotes and celebrates technology businesses. Outside of the flagship EIE event, the team are there to support companies of every size throughout the year and we continue to benefit from the contacts and networks they have helped us to build.”

We got together with founders from Float, Biogelx and MindMate in March to discuss ‘The Scottish Startup Survey’, an initiative backed by Informatics Ventures and the University of Edinburgh Business School, in association with my own consultancy, with the overarching aim of producing a world-class annual survey that gets to grips with what life is like for a startup based in Scotland.

While we have quizzed this year’s EIE companies and the EIE alumni going back almost ten years on areas like skills and investment, we’re also asking questions about inspirational tech leaders and who the sample think is most likely to be Scotland’s next tech unicorn. Informatics Ventures hope the informed findings will allow the team to give even better support to Scotland’s technology entrepreneurs going forward.

Informatics Ventures, led by Director of Operations Dr Steve Ewing, runs a year-round programme backing our most promising young tech companies and this year’s annual EIE investor showcase event – the centrepiece of the annual EIE programme – is being staged at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) for the first time.

The event sees investors jet in from across the globe for the chance to meet startups who could be the next big thing. While last year’s EIE was notable for the large delegation of Chinese investors in attendance, this year’s proceedings will see Silicon Valley royalty in the form of RocketSpace’s Duncan Logan and DFJ Venture Capital’s Steve Jurvetson join Martin Gilbert and Bob Keiller as keynote speakers.

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Investors get the chance to hear from pitching companies like Mallzee, Pick Protection, ShotScope, Urban Tide, Nooq and over fifty more and make connections that have led to over £400 million being invested in EIE companies since 2008.

EIE also brings together the most prominent players from Scotland’s tech ecosystem – the lawyers, accountants and other advisers who help our companies go from startup to scale-up. Supporters and sponsors like Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Equity Partners, Cazenove Capital, LINC Scotland, RBS, Johnston Carmichael, MBM Commercial, Marks & Clerk and TalentSpark help make the whole thing possible and overall this translates to EIE17 being not only one of the best networking days in the business calendar but also very probably the single most important tech event in Scotland in 2017.

Dr Steve Ewing says it has been another momentous year in the making for the Informatics Ventures team: “The Scottish tech scene is at a zenith point in 2017 with a fast-maturing ecosystem that is producing wave after wave of fantastic early stage companies. Many of these Scottish success stories have come through the EIE programme and that’s something myself and the team are massively proud of.

Like the ecosystem itself, we need to evolve and move with changing times and always with ever-closer relations to the investor networks that can be real game-changers for our startups. It’s also with a great amount of pride that we will welcome investors from across the globe to Edinburgh for EIE17.

• Nick Freer is the managing director and founder of the Freer Consultancy and an adviser to Informatics Ventures. EIE17 takes place at the EICC on Thursday 11th May.