Finding Scotland’s next tech ‘unicorns’

Much like their mythical namesake tech ‘unicorns’ are elusive beasts.

Much like their mythical namesake tech ‘unicorns’ are elusive beasts.

The term refers to the high flying start-ups voraciously sought by investors: technology firms whose valuation has exceeded $1billion.

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According to American venture capitalist database CB Insights there are only 152 ‘unicorns’ in the world.

Scotland has two of them.

Housed in the same stables at Edinburgh’s Quartermile, flight comparison site, Skyscanner and FanDuel - which allows fans to place bets on fantasy sports - have garnered international attention and shone a welcome spotlight on Scotland’s blossoming technology sector thanks to their respective $1.6bn (£1bn) and $1bn (£690m) appraisals.

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These two industry leviathans have entered the exclusive billion dollar club thanks to the ingenuity of their creators and the nurturing environment present in the country today.

A report from KPMG in December 2015 showed technology enterprise in Scotland is in fine fettle and has enjoyed a growth rate of 43.4 per cent over the last five years - well ahead of the UK average of 31.3 per cent.

With government backed support agencies, pioneering universities and start-up incubators Scotland has created the perfect environment for budding entrepreneurs to grow their businesses.

So where will the next unicorn spring from?

Few are better placed to make such a bold prediction than, Jamie Coleman, managing director of Codebase.

Coleman who heads the UK’s largest technology incubator believes there are several Scottish companies that can reach the billion dollar valuation mark.

However if pushed, two stand out: “I believe that the next two billion dollar valuation companies in Scotland will be TVsquared and Administrate”

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He added: “ Following on their heels are a range of exciting companies including Speech Graphics, Aquila Insight, CogBooks and Cloudsoft to name a few.”

While it is difficult for anyone to accurately predict where the next unicorn will come from one young company to watch is Administrate.

Based in Edinburgh and headed by 34-year-old chief executive, John Peebles, Administrate aim to tap into the growing demand of one of the world’s fastest growing markets, online learning.

“We are in a really high growth period right now,” explains Peebles, “We’ve doubled in size every year for the last four years.

The firm, which employs about 35 people, secured £1.7 million in an oversubscribed funding round in December led by Scottish angel syndicate Archangels.

The young executive who hails from the US believes the entrepreneurial “ecosystem” of Scotland has provided his company with a huge boost.

Peebles said: “ We wouldn’t be here without the support of organisations like SDI (Scottish Development International) and Scottish Enterprise.

“There is just so much opportunity to secure investment right now.”

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The American singles out particular praise to the “community spirit” fostered in the Edinburgh among the start-up crowd.

He said: “ I’ve had opportunities to get advice from the guys at Skyscanner and many of us pledge 30 minutes to help out new start-ups. We can have a laugh - or cry! - together and help one another out.”

“It’s something I’ve found is unique to Edinburgh”

Headquartered alongside Administrate at CodeBase’s Edinburgh hub are TV Squared.

Previously described by Coleman as “an absolute rocket ship”, TVSquared, has already begun to crack the lucrative US market and is gearing up to conquer this side of the Atlantic.

Founded by Scot Calum Smeaton, the company delivers powerful analytics to TV advertisers and aims to bring the $180billion dollar industry “out of the Dark Ages”.

A fellow resident of the Capital’s thriving tech scene is QikServe, the ‘pocket waiter’ app that allows users to order and pay for meals in restaurants with their smartphones.

Started by Scots duo Daniel Rodgers, 43, and Ronnie Forbes, 50, in 2012, QikServe have just formed a partnership with US technology giant Oracle.

Under the tie-up, QikServe’s technology will be fully integrated into Oracle Hospitality’s point of sale platform.

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“If you had told us we would be in partnership with the world’s biggest POS company within four years of launching I don’t think we would have believed you,” says founder and COO Rodgers.

He added: “ When we were small nobody wanted would talk to us, we just had to keep being disruptive

“Now we’ve now got really exciting opportunities in the US and Australia and are also working on a major rollout in Amsterdam’s Schipol airport.

“The goal is to be the go to platform for payments in the hospitality sector.”

Rodgers and Forbes hope to raise a further £5m in funding before the end of 2016 to help with their international expansion.

Another qualified to forecast where the next tech superstar may arise from is Gordon Stuart, director of operations at Informatics Ventures, a public and privately funded organisation that connects Scotland’s enterprising talent with investors.

“To my mind there are many to watch,” says Stuart, “PureLifi, the Edinburgh University spinout, fashion app Mallzee, in cyber-security there is ZoneFox and in renewables you’ve got Celtic Renewables”

Stuart’s organisation encourages and supports tech companies throughout Scotland through running training and networking events, and by organising Engage Invest Exploit (EIE), a technology showcase at which companies pitch to potential investors.

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He said “There is a friendly environment in Edinburgh, so many incubators and a flow of talent from the universities.

“Any of these companies could be the next big thing, you never know”

However you look at it, Scotland’s tech sector is in rude health, says Nick Freer who runs the Freer Consultancy and advises many of the leading lights in Scotland’s tech scene.

He says: “What is undeniable is that it’s great news that we now have not only established unicorns in Scotland but a crop of fast-growing startups that could easily become the next big thing in tech.”

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