Nick Freer: Scotland must showcase strength as a tech hub
I had a one-to-one with the CEO of Scotland's fastest-growing tech company last week around a survey of Scotland's start-up scene we are working on with Informatics Ventures.
No benchmark survey currently exists so we want to get to the heart of what really matters for our most promising early-stage companies and founders.
While we think the “talking shop” stage is an important first step, the aim is to end up with a piece of research that is less self-serving and positioned more to get media and investors outside Scotland thinking about our nation as a bona fide tech hub alongside better-known start-up centres in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and Israel.
A quick calculation reveals that international tech bible Wired has written about Tel Aviv’s tech cluster more than 30 times over the last couple of years, while Scotland gets only one write-up. If you believe the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is holding back our tech scene – and I do – then it’s clear we need to do more to make an impression on the international stage.
While some of our individual tech stories have reached global audiences – think Skyscanner, FanDuel, Rockstar North or pureLiFi, who featured their world-leading LiFi technology at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – as a collective we are falling woefully short when it comes to getting our story heard in comparison to much more heralded tech centres across the world; a case of our whole being less important than the sum of our parts.
So if we assume that we’ve got a less internationally recognised centre for tech excellence despite an impressive array of individual moving parts, various questions arise and one of them is around how this is impacting on the success rate of our start-ups.
Two obvious areas to be impacted include investor funding and attracting talent, two topics that will be to the fore in the start-up survey. In general terms, commonplace thinking by our tech leaders says both money and people remain significant issues for our fast-growing companies.
More specifically, it comes down to getting the right type of investor funding – or “smart money” – and the individuals and teams of people who can take the business to the next level. Not infrequently, both are difficult to come by, particularly when we have to address the knowledge gap and educate investors and tech talent outside Scotland about our impressive credentials then persuade them to either part with their hard cash or relocate here.
The good news is there is a lot of talk around town about how we package our tech nation as a story and then sell it to the rest of the world. The bad news is that we lack coordination and collaboration (sound like a common theme?) and I don’t believe we have the kind of brand experts on the job that could make a real difference.
Of course, until the rest of the world starts really listening, the best policy is to keep building our ecosystem from the inside out. One missing piece in the jigsaw that is Scottish tech is the kind of Silicon Valley-style accelerator that has helped to drive the success of so many tech companies in other parts of the world.
As things stand, Scottish startups like e-commerce specialist Big Data For Humans and dementia app developer MindMate have jetted off to world-renowned accelerator programmes in London and New York to get the kind of support it would be great to have closer to home. Encouragingly, the word on the street is that a high-quality Scotland-based accelerator is in the pipeline.
I was out for dinner with some tech founders recently and the conversation turned to the next Scottish unicorn. While most of the money in this particular horse race appears to be on “ad tech” player TVSquared and training software specialist Administrate, it was interesting to hear a few outside bets like Care Sourcer, a health tech start-up founded only last year.
• Nick Freer runs communications and business advisory agency, the Freer Consultancy