Nick Freer: Running to keep ahead in the tech marathon

Those readers who have perused my previous scribblings may have noticed a common thread '“ a fairly regular reference to Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Nick Freer ponders the race to put Scotland on the global tech map. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Nick Freer ponders the race to put Scotland on the global tech map. Picture: Stewart Attwood

On a personal level, I’m trying in vain to wean myself off the most annoyingly addictive of sites and, in business terms, it’s not really an online tool that has worked for me to date.

However, with Facebook as one of the most powerful companies on the planet and with a headline-grabbing founder never far from the news, the social media/online ad powerhouse is undoubtedly an all-pervading entity for many of us in 2017 and as someone who likes to follow the lives and times of present day entrepreneurs I’m pretty hooked on all things Zuck.

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Love or loathe the guy, you’ve got to hand it to Zuckerberg for finding the time for his very publicly-documented personal development projects to read a book every other week, teach his daughter Mandarin Chinese though a domestic artificial intelligence (AI) system he designed for the family home or, last year, to run 365 miles.

Zuckerberg’s “Year of Running” in 2016, when social media lit up with images of the tech mogul pacing over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in what was quickly branded the “smog jog” or through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, became a movement to get people across the world into running. Being a total sucker – a “Zucker-sucker” if you will – I duly went out and bought a pair of running shoes and started plodding the streets every morning.

I hadn’t run since I was a schoolboy when I won the Scottish Schools Cross-Country Championships and after a 25-year break I was part of the Hunters Bog Trotters cross-country team that won a bronze medal in last month’s Scottish Masters XC championships in Dundee. Right enough, I wasn’t thinking of or thanking Zuck as I ran up a muddy, one-kilometre, near-vertical trail in vile conditions for the second time but there was something serendipitous in there somewhere.

One of my current obsessions is around the connections we have to people and networks and how these translate to business outcomes and in the last year I’ve moved to being only one connection away from His Zuckness following a quite incredible milestone in Scotland’s developing tech story.

For many, the best Scottish tech tales of the last year have been Skyscanner or FanDuel but for me it was Facebook’s acquisition of a small, virtual reality tech startup based in an office above a Chinese restaurant on Queensferry Street in Edinburgh.

The Indian-born founders of Two Big Ears, Varun Nair and Abesh Thakur, developed the world’s leading technology in audio VR from a base in Scotland and now sit with Facebook’s VR and Oculus teams a mere stone’s throw from Mark Zuckerberg in Facebook HQ. Fast forward a year and Edinburgh’s School of Informatics recently hosted Facebook’s head of AI, Yann LeCun, at the university and unsurprisingly tickets went like hot cakes.

Edinburgh’s School of Informatics is one of the main factors in the success of Scotland’s burgeoning tech ecosystem, with a world-class AI department and expertise in machine learning on a par with better-known informatics schools at Stanford and MIT.

There must be some kind of intrinsic link between us Scots and machine learning when you consider the guy that heads Google’s machine learning division is Bridge of Allan-born and University of Strathclyde-educated John Giannandreas. In times of Brexit, the hope is the study of computer sciences in Scotland will have an environment in which it can continue to flourish.

What is for sure is that Scotland is increasingly putting itself on the global tech map. It was exciting to hear the news last week that Silicon Valley royalty RocketSpace and DFJ Venture Capital will feature alongside Scottish Enterprise Chairman, Bob Keiller, and Aberdeen Asset Management’s Martin Gilbert at EIE17 at the EICC in May.

• Nick Freer runs communications and business advisory agency, the Freer Consultancy