‘Motherships, unicorns and disruption’

If you rub shoulders with the tech crowd for long enough you start picking up the lingo. The word ‘disruptive’ is one that cannot fail to attach itself to a conversation these days, as everyone searches for the next big idea that will dismantle the old way of doing business.

Scotland is no stranger to invention: throughout the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, its thinkers and doers had a transformative effect on everything from economic theory to the invention of the steam engine. Fast forward a hundred plus years, and it palpably feels as if we may now be standing on the cusp of the next big thing: digital technology.

Already the dotcom crash of the early noughties feels like a distant, dim memory, and that nothing can stop Scotland’s tech scene from becoming an economic juggernaut. You can see it. It’s coming. Just over the hill.

So it’s unsurprising that last month there was a real buzz about an industry survey published by Tech Nation, which showed that Edinburgh is third highest for advertised tech salaries in the UK, with an average pay packet of £51,000, representing growth of 26% in the three years between 2012 and 2015. Only London, with its Silicon Roundabout and the Thames silicon Valley towns of Reading and Bracknell outstrip Edinburgh for earning potential.

Referred to as the ‘mothership’ by those in the know, the capital is an undeniable success story; it’s a lovely place to live, has a wonderful university and truly groundbreaking data science coming out of Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics. Some have even put it on a par with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Praise indeed, and perhaps no coincidence that Skyscanner and Fanduel, the ‘unicorn’ billion-dollar valued companies have come from such a wellspring of creativity. CodeBase, the UK’s largest tech incubator, is also based there, spurred on by some highly creative and already global young com- panies from whose ranks have come two others on a watchlist, TVSquared and Administrate.

Glasgow, which features at number eight on the Tech Nation list, has a different economic makeup. It is growing its large corporate tech base with the likes of JP Morgan – who are starting to sell their own software development expertise – basing themselves in the city.

Nevertheless it is still a hotbed of activity for start-ups: Govan has seen the emergence of the RookieOven, run by Michael Hayes, who with no financial backing has grown the business with grassroots community support to house 11 digital companies. They include Rawtech, which has developed an ‘Uber for island communities’ and Insurance By Jack, which is innovating how freelancers and SMEs buy insurance.

“RookieOven started in 2011 after I was involved with a failed startup,” says Hayes. “I felt a lack of community was hurting Glasgow’s ability to produce tech startups so RookieOven was born, initially as a blog and a meetup.

“In February last year we opened the co-working space in the Fairfield Shipyard Offices. It’s a site known through its lifetime as a place of engineering excellence. Before planes and cars, ships powered the world and Fairfield was producing the most advanced and fastest ships in the world. This engineering talent and innovation made the River Clyde the Silicon Valley of its day.”

ScotlandIS, the tech trade body, naturally has welcomed the success of both cities, but has emphasised that tech can take root across the rest of the country, with certain zones creating specialisms for themselves, a bit like Dundee has with the games industry.

“The report is very much flagging up that whilst London has been the real gathering point for the tech community, particularly in England, actually now there are new tech entities flourishing in a whole range of cities and towns across the whole of the UK, notably Edinburgh and Glasgow,” says Polly Purvis, its CEO.

“What we can do is take some lessons that the success of Edinburgh has provided, and use those to inform how we handle creating similar communities in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Dundee, Perth Kirkaldy, wherever you want,” she adds.

“I don’t think everywhere has got the capability to be a flourishing technology centre so I think by giving Edinburgh that PR around how well it’s succeeded actually will help to encourage other people in other parts of the country to do their own thing. I think there are also opportunities for different centres to concentrate on particular areas of expertise that may be relevant to that locale.”

ScotlandIS itself is looking to nurture a putative ‘tech week’ which unites the industry in an event, or series of events, taking place in 2017, similar to the Dublin Web Summit. The format is yet to be decided but it could conceivably unite ScotSoft, ScotlandIS’s own event, with the likes of the Turing Festival or the Scotland Javascript Conference.

Purvis also believes the success of start-ups can be pushed further by creating the right conditions for success. She says the tech scene works best when mentors who have been through the early stages of setting up a business are on hand to help the next lot. And, of course, access to seed capital.

“We’re beginning to see a great community spirit within the technology sector now where people have come through all the tough times of setting up a start-up and growing that business and are now mentoring and providing advice and guidance to the new ones coming through,” she says.

“I think access to that network of people who can support you is hugely important. But all you need now is
a laptop, a good idea, somewhere to perch and you can create a business.”