Tech Nation Panel at the Bayes Centre

By Dr Steve Ewing, Director of Operations, Informatics Ventures

On Thursday evening last week I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion panel during the Tech Nation 2019 Report roadshow event here in the Bayes Centre in the University of Edinburgh at the heart of the aspirational Data Capital of Europe. With me representing the Bayes Centre and Informatics Ventures, I was joined on the panel by my fantastic fellow panellists:
Tracey Ginn, an attorney, an active member of the State Bar of California and head of MBM Commercial’s USA practice;
Andy Sloane, co-founder of Accelerated Digital Ventures and leads on its investment market engagement across Scotland and the North-West;
Leah Hutcheon, founder and CEO of the Edinburgh-based software company, Appointedd, and pioneering woman in tech, role model and UK Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year.

The question before the panel was How does Scotland build on its reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship? and the way we thought we’d approach that is to have a bit of fun and inspiration with a bit of a state of the nation SWOT (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) analysis initially with the panel then opening it out to the audience after that.

Actually, I dubbed the ‘Weaknesses’ section as ‘Challenges’ which prompted one wag on Twitter to refer to it as a SCOT analysis…I’m having that!

Meanwhile back to the question, here’s my preparatory notes augmented with the reality of some insights from the panel and audience alike…

FIRST TO THE FOUNDATIONS, OUR STRENGTHS…
• Scotland has a fantastically supportive ecosystem in which public, private and third sector organisations are united around a shared vision;
• We have a strong regional development agency, Scottish Enterprise, including the Scottish Investment Bank (which, according to the Beauhurst ‘The Deal’ report of 2018, was the third top investor by UK deal numbers in that year);
• We are blessed with strong home grown and international engineering and developer talent;
• We benefit from an increasing numbers of incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces across the country;
• We have a world class research base with clear strengths in AI, blockchain, robotics, natural language processing and climate science to name a few;
• We have access to Innovation Centres like The Data Lab and innovation zones like those in Glasgow which blend academic creativity and invention;
• And finally but not least, for this part, we have world-class entrepreneur support and networking organisations like Converge Challenge, Scottish EDGE and Informatics Ventures;

AND SO TO OUR WEAKNESSES, RATHER CHALLENGES…
• There is an issue getting access to growth capital (at the £2m to £10m level) to fund the transition from early-stage to mid-stage growth and limited proximity to distant sources of the same;
• It’s getting better now but there is still a challenge accessing experienced sales & marketing and leadership talent;
• There is, perhaps, a perception that we are still being parochial and companies must look closely as to what their internationalisation strategy is going to be, with boots on the ground … or not;
• To quote the new CEO of Scottish Enterprise, Steve Dunlop, he believes that Scotland needs to talk up its successes more, boosting its confidence and aspiration rather than focusing on the negatives – ‘Lose the modesty!’ as one panel member put it;
• Are we as good as we can be in translating the world class research into innovation and company formation;
• We are perhaps, within Scotland, not as well connected as we could be either across the central belt or north/south;
• There is still a regional disparity in investment activity
• There remains an issue with diversity…even if Scotland leads the UK in terms of gender inclusion in the tech sector. According to the British Business Bank report of February 2019, in the UK, for every £1 of venture capital (VC) investment in the UK, all-female founder teams get less than 1p, all-male founder teams get 89p. At current rate of change (0.2%pa), it would take until 2045 for even 10% of UK VC deals to be in all female teams. That is neither desirable nor sustainable;

SO NOW TO OPPORTUNITIES…
• ‘Distant’ though we are, we are still within a short flight or train’s distance from the UK and Continental Europe’s great financial centres and the sources of growth capital;
• We are increasingly being inspired by the concept and practice of impact-led entrepreneurship, inclusive growth (growth distributed fairly across society creating opportunities for all) and investment – beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return – taking a lead from the likes of Social Investment Scotland to help early stage businesses and social enterprises grow and deliver social impact at scale;
We are building on our reputation for innovation, creativity and design or design-led ethos – Dundee as a hotspot for games, life sciences and biotech, Aberdeen for the new generation of oil and gas tech start-ups and Edinburgh and Glasgow for fintech, climate science and informatics;
• We are building on our need to enhance collaboration through regional partnerships
• With the focus drifting away from the mythical ‘Unicorn’ status, as former senior Skyscanner executive Richard Lennox wrote in a column a fortnight ago that we shouldn’t measure tech success by unicorns, we should concentrate on “small giants” – “companies who focus on being great over big and look to create sustainable, profitable, medium-sized enterprises”;
• Scotland is a centre of excellence for space and satellite technology – the sheer wealth of engineering and science talent throughout Scotland is one of the main reasons that the UK Space Agency selected Sutherland – in the north of Scotland – out of 26 possible locations for the first UK spaceport;
• We have unparalleled access to policy makers and have been influential in the creation of the Scottish National Investment Bank;
• Great work/life balance so quality of life, most recently, building on the Scotland is Now campaign and aiming to enhance and promote the appeal of Scotland as a place to live, work, study, invest and attracting fresh talent;

FINALLY TO THREATS OR WHERE WE ARE IN DANGER OF FALLING BEHIND
• Have other locations in the UK emerged as stronger hubs?;
• We need to understand more and more quickly how we compete on a global stage;
• Brexit adding more strain to being able to attract and access the skill level business often need to be able to grow;
• Institutional apathy where global ambitions are promulgated but perhaps not sufficiently resourced;
• There are understandable, perhaps, societal concerns around the emergence of AI, machine learning, big data, cybersecurity and robotics;
• Are we hindered by the threat and impact of (at times inevitable?) failure – are we more or less well placed to find the adaptive resilience, as SE’s CEO Steve Dunlop refers to it, to weather the failures that inevitably come startup and scaleup company formation?

So there we are…some distilled thoughts from our SCOTTM Analysis inspired an excellent panel and by a fantastically engaged audience…not so much conclusions but definitely much to mull over in the months ahead.

Thanks and best of luck to the Tech Nation team and Hazel Gibbens, their new Entrepreneur Engagement Manager for Scotland, as they continue to advance their efforts here and further afield.

Finally, a thousand thanks to my colleagues in the Bayes Centre and the awesome team that is Informatics Ventures who helped make last night’s event happen. What a team!

FOOTNOTE: If you happen to meet Tracey, Andy and/or Leah in the bar of a warm summer’s evening, it’s a rosé wine, a large G&T and an ice cold cider, in that order. I know I definitely owe them one!