Comment: Scots start-ups face challenges with England hot on their heels

Finding enough people talent remains a challenge for Scotland's tech sector, says Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood.
Finding enough people talent remains a challenge for Scotland's tech sector, says Nick Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood.
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Most working weeks bring a few surprises and one last week was an email from global accounting firm PwC to confirm my nomination for journalist of the year at their annual tech awards.

I’ll admit to spitting out a few cornflakes reading the email over breakfast as I’m no bona fide journalist and only write a regular column in this newspaper, which tends to flit around Scotland’s start-up scene.

In addition to not being a journalist, nor am I an expert on tech so a firm of PwC’s standing could have done a better job on the due diligence front. At the same time, I haven’t had a sniff at too many awards so, unless it was the early morning double espresso kicking in, I did feel a small surge of pride as I read about the grand ceremony at a top London hotel later this year.

When I started to write about the tech scene a few years back, there were no dedicated tech reporters in Scotland. At that time, we received occasional visits from London-based tech press and, as an external PR adviser to Skyscanner, CodeBase and the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics – who I dubbed Scotland’s “Holy Trinity of Tech” – I had some success in bringing heavyweights of the tech reporting world north of the Border.

Trips by the Financial Times and The Next Web were two significant “wins” and the resulting coverage helped to bring some of the exciting stuff happening on Scotland’s digital landscape to an international readership.

As well as the so-called “Holy Trinity”, highly innovative ventures like PureLiFi, at that stage still in something of a fledgling state, piqued the interest of the London press corps, as did founders like Mike Welch at Blackcircles.com, an e-commerce pioneer who made good print with his straight-from-the-hip commentary on scaling a start-up from a Scottish base.

Today, we have critical mass in terms of Scotland-based journalists reporting the tech ecosystem’s narrative to growing readerships in Scotland and beyond – The Scotsman’s Future Scotland site and Leith-based digital news outlet DIGIT are just two examples.

Scotland’s tech world continues to produce compelling storylines, not least Ctrip’s acquisition of Skyscanner and FanDuel’s rollercoaster unicorn ride. But there are also less well-known stories and, for me, these include VR audio start-up Two Big Ears and wearable tech scale-up mLED both being acquired by Silicon Valley juggernaut Facebook in 2016.

To help fuel our wannabe start-up rockets we have a sophisticated angel investor community, supportive enterprise agencies and world-class universities to provide human capital. In Scottish Equity Partners and Pentech we have indigenous venture capitalists who can write the kind of cheques that equate to rocket fuel for companies with real scale-up potential.

That said, the consensus in VC circles is that Manchester is producing far more of these near-unicorn potential scale-ups than Scotland, so that is something of a concern.

At the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA) annual Scotland dinner, SEP managing partner Calum Paterson delivered one of his first keynote addresses since becoming BVCA chair. On the eve of the World Cup kick-off in Russia, Paterson peppered his speech with a bit of gentle ribbing of the English contingent and their national team’s showing at recent tournaments.

Joking aside, as Skyscanner’s first institutional investor few get the workings of Scotland’s tech ecosystem better than Paterson. In a press interview earlier this year, he acknowledged that some of SEP’s most successful investments have been based in Scotland. On the flip side, he went on to say that increasing the pool of people talent remains a challenge and we must ensure our young people have fair and proper access to education and learning.

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