City analysis: Edinburgh can build on success of tech ‘unicorns’

Kane Fulton, June 22, 2018 4 min read

As Tech Nation on Tour comes to Edinburgh, we’ve heard from a panel of local figureheads about the issues affecting Scotland’s tech ecosystem.

It’s all about unicorns

The panel agreed that Scotland is proud of its two tech “unicorns”, both founded in Edinburgh, which have a positive influence on the region’s startup ecosystem and benefit it in a number of ways.

The success of the companies in question – FanDuel and Skyscanner (Future Fifty alumni), which was sold in 2016 for £1.4bn – was a hot topic throughout the discussion.

Their presence has helped attract talent, investment and positive press attention to the region, we heard, while leading to the formation of new companies that work out of coworking spaces such as our event host, CodeBase.

It’s not all about unicorns

However, it was suggested that focusing on unicorns exclusively would be to the detriment of startups motivated by organic growth, rather than investment.

The sector’s growth in Scotland is reflected in new data from Tech Nation, which found that the number of digital tech jobs in Scotland hit 48,448 in 2017, up 8% on 2016’s total.

Three Scottish tech hubs are singled out in the latest Tech Nation report: Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. Together they contribute £2.4bn or three-fifths of Scotland’s total tech turnover. The tech sector in Scotland is worth £3.9bn with digital tech turnover per employee hitting £80,000.

Andrew McKinley, CEO of Care Sourcer, said:

“We see a benefit in the fall out of success stories like Skyscanner and FanDuel in that the engineers in those teams have been on massive journeys, and people are looking to move on, joining teams or starting their own ventures. Their success will put Edinburgh on the map and help the rest of us grow.”

Rob Jones, CEO of Flick, said:

“For me, it’s not about unicorn status – it’s ambition. We need people to have that audacious, ridiculous goal mindset and believe they can change entire industries, or go for really big disruptive markets. Many UK startups focus on the UK or Europe, but if they focused on two per cent of the US market it would bring a significantly bigger return. In terms of talent we need to get really good at nurturing and upskilling people from within, while attracting people from places such as London, offering a better quality of life here and good salaries.

Sarah Lee, CEO of PingGo, said:

“It’s really exciting that the two unicorns and their teams stayed in Scotland. That’s going to have a massive impact on the ecosystem here, where there are hubs of innovation with talent, energy, drive and dynamism. They can bring their knowledge, awareness and ambition and help to foster the next generation. At the same time, unicorns are a tiny one per cent of companies out there, so to focus on them entirely would be unfair and completely skew the Scottish ecosystem.”

Unity and community

The Tech Nation Report 2018 set out to understand what people on the ground felt about their ecosystem. In Edinburgh the key strengths that emerged were its helpful tech community and proximity to a university.

Edinburgh’s strong sense of community was underlined by CodeBase founder James Coleman, who said that the tech incubator has placed importance on the community coming together to ward away bad actors looking to enter the ecosystem.

In attracting the tech talent needed to fill roles, we heard that Scotland’s companies can’t rely on Edinburgh and Glasgow’s “amazing culture” to attract skilled workers. They should make themselves attractive to skilled international workers in the face of Brexit by creating opportunities to work on the latest tech. Allowing remote working and investing in learning and development emerged as two attractive traits for tempting talent.

Tradition of ambition

Scotland is certainly not lacking in ambition. There is a drive to establish Edinburgh as the data capital of Europe and Prime Minister Theresa May last week announced that the Scottish capital would be the location for Scotland’s first AI and blockchain accelerator, run by Wayra UK and supported by Scottish Enterprise.

To find people to work in these and other fields, the panel agreed that companies could also tap into existing talent pools, fostering “open and inclusive” work cultures to increase diversity in the tech workforce, attracting more women into roles, and appealing to an older generation of skilled workers perhaps working in other industries.

To achieve this, stakeholders such as government, education, startups, corporates and SMEs should come together to build durable solutions. Govtech, which can play a part in this, was hailed the biggest sector in Scotland yet to be disrupted.

Emma Purvey, CEO of Outplay, said:

“We have a high percentage of women compared to other game developers. When girls from local schools come in for work experience, we get our developers talking to them which is really important. It opens our business up to them, breaks down barriers and allows us to learn loads from them – more companies should do it.”

Alexander Holt, Head of CivTech at the Scottish Government, said:

“While there’s this massive surge in tech, there many people who have been left behind. In the provision of public services we have to remember that you won’t get to everyone. There are nuances around social cohesion and inclusion that need to be tackled and not forgotten.”

Lizzie Brough, CEO Kindabra, said:

“We’re seeing a growing amount of confidence with silver surfers, and part of that is about flexibility. To attract people to roles we use language that talks about soft skills and other capabilities and confidences that people can bring to the workplace.”

Community, Edinburgh, Scotland, Tech Nation Report 2018, Tech Nation Tour