Nick Freer comment: Diversifying talent in the Scottish start-up scene

Last week, some of Scotland’s main movers in all things tech released findings from a survey into gender balance in Scotland’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) industries, which found that most women would prefer to work for a small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) rather than a large corporate.
We should see proportionately more female founders in the years ahead, says Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood.We should see proportionately more female founders in the years ahead, says Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood.
We should see proportionately more female founders in the years ahead, says Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood.

The survey says SMEs are more desirable than large corporates because of flatter organisational structures and a greater ability to be innovative. Respondents also said career progression and culture were more important than pay, but that SMEs could be doing a lot more to make themselves attractive to female applicants.

Of course, a third option open to aspirational women is to found their own digital ventures – although industry research shows us this is a much less travelled route. However, as I recently wrote in this column, the size and shape of Scotland’s tech ecosystem and the level of support available, including from enterprise agencies, should mean we see proportionately more female founders in the years ahead.

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I was discussing this with Alba Sort, a female founder from Catalonia, earlier this month as the healthtech start-up she co-founded with her sister Anna plots a possible move from its Barcelona headquarters to Edinburgh. For me, this is the kind of good news story for Scotland’s tech community that should be celebrated as we face choppy Brexit waters and a net outflow of non-UK nationals, many of whom help to power our technology start-ups.

Alba, a former head of marketing at Bigmouthmedia, one of Scotland’s most successful digital companies of recent times (it was acquired by French advertising giant Publicis for £330 million in 2012), founded her first start-up as the dot-com bubble was exploding and while it was ultimately unsuccessful, industry research tells us that most first-time start-ups will fail but that second-timers like Alba achieve much greater success the next time around the block.

Last year, Indiehealth’s Sort sisters went to Boston as part of a Catalan government programme for high-potential start-ups, where they got to meet key players from the US’s ehealth ecosystem. The trip led to a pivot for Indiehealth, with the company switching from a wellbeing gamification app to a personalised gut health specialist targeting individuals with issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Indiehealth’s new offering is called B.Energy Plus, a premium gut health subscription service with an accompanying B.Enery App – positioned as a tool to control IBS symptoms and help accelerate the diagnosis process.

Should Indieheatlh decide to relocate to Scotland, the company will join a sector of Scotland’s technology scene that is very much in the ascendancy – start-ups and scale-ups like care-matching platform Care Sourcer, AI-enabled wearable device developer Current Health, and microbiome therapeutics specialist EnteroBiotix. Later this month in Edinburgh, investors will get the chance to meet the next wave of Scottish healthtech start-ups, when Adelie Health, CogniHealth, Estendio and MyWay Digital Health pitch for seed funding at Informatics Ventures-run EIE19.

Another prominent Scottish healthtech start-up is MindMate, a free cognitive health and lifestyle app used by more than 1 million people worldwide. Headquartered in Glasgow, and supported by a number of US venture capital firms, all of its co-founders are non-UK nationals, including chief executive Susanne Mitschke who hails from Germany.

Mitschke has previously described Scotland as a “paradise” for starting up a tech company, although she also expressed nervousness around Brexit, funding and talent acquisition. What is certain is that having female, non-UK national founders like Mitschke and Sort in the Scottish start-up ecosystem adds considerably to its strength and diversity.

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