Scotland has access to world-class start-up talent - Nick Freer

It was good to be back at a tech conference earlier this month, when Turing Fest rolled into the EICC following a virtual get together in 2020.

Former Facebook executive Varun Nair speaking at Turing Fest at the EICC earlier this month

Two Big Ears co-founder Varun Nair, whose startup was acquired by Facebook in 2016, was in the ‘not to miss’ category. Back in Edinburgh after leaving his role as head of augmented reality/virtual reality in the audio software team at the social media giant’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Nair, who wrote for this column a few weeks ago (“An overnight success is always years in the making”), is now working on a new venture while advising a number of other startups in the city.

Having known Varun for years, and being aware of his humble disposition, it didn’t surprise me that he didn’t mention his alma mater, Facebook, or Meta going by its new brand iteration, once during his talk to conference. If the Silicon Valley experience has changed Varun, it’s not apparent when you talk to him. If anything, he might just be wearing slightly more expensive shirts than when I first met him back in 2014.

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In his keynote address, titled “Move Fast and Ship Things”, the former Facebooker stressed that when you’re developing software, “every moment counts”. Measurement of success in developing code can be imperfect, said Nair, “metrics can hide the truth, the real metric is the time it takes to ship code and validate it”. What kills startups? According to Varun, it comes down to a lack of focus and an inability to ship code and make an impact.

Nick Freer is the founding director of strategic corporate communications agency Freer Consultancy

A big crowd, certainly the biggest crowd I’ve been in for I don’t know let’s say the last eighteen months, assembled for the closing session - with Turing CEO Brian Corcoran interviewing Chris McCann, CEO and co-founder of Current Health, the health tech company acquired by US online retailer Best Buy in October. Corcoran and McCann’s ‘fireside chat’ outlined how the pandemic had highlighted the importance of Current Health’s technology, which allows healthcare operators like hospitals to monitor patients at home.

McCann recounted how Current Health’s headcount had grown five-fold since 2020, how the Covid crisis “reinvented healthcare overnight”, and how investors “don’t just believe what you are today, they believe in where you are going”. McCann also stressed the importance of the co-founder relationship. “It’s not just about the work, it’s about sharing the emotional ups and downs”, he said.

Later at the bar, I reminded Chris that we had handled his original seed round investment announcement back in 2016, before the company had rebranded to Current Health and was called snap40. At the time, the £2 million round was the largest ever seed investment into a Scottish startup.

Fast forward five years, and this week we handled the press announcement of the $21 million seed investment round into BetDEX, a soon-to-be-launched decentralised sports betting exchange that runs on blockchain technology where bets and trades are made using cryptocurrency.

Perhaps more important than it being the largest ever seed round investment into a UK startup, is co-founder Nigel Eccles’ view that Scotland has access to world-class talent and that our ecosystem can make a name for itself in Web 3.0, the next stage of evolution on the internet.

Nick Freer is the founding director of strategic corporate communications agency the Freer Consultancy