‘If Larry Page had attended a Scottish university, Google might never have happened’

When Mark Logan unveiled his wide-ranging and often candid report aimed at bolstering the fortunes of the Scottish tech industry, he probably didn’t realise the impact it would have. Released in August, the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review has not been left on a shelf to gather dust. Rather, it is spearheading a revolution in the way government supports the tech sector.

With 34 separate recommendations, all of which have been “accepted in full” according to finance secretary Kate Forbes, plans are underway to turn its proposals into meaningful action. This will include a nationwide hub of ‘tech scalers’, which will improve the ways that tech education and mentoring is used to support entrepreneurs and help startups to realise their ambitions.

Forbes, speaking at Digital Scotland, the annual public sector digital and data conference, said she wants to see between 300 to 500 companies being supported by the network by the end of 2022. And the minister, who credited the former chief operating officer of Skyscanner for his “brilliant” work, appeared to open up the prospect of a more foundational role for tech across the economy.

She said: “I regularly ask myself what decisions do we want to look back on in ten years’ time that deliver the results and the achievements that were key to our success post-Covid? That’s why I’ve worked quickly to respond to Mark’s recommendations and in our programme for government accepted the recommendations in full. It was important to respond to the review and to keep that momentum going. I don’t mean to just praise it, but to back it up with real funding and real commitment.”

That commitment will include an ecosystem fund that will make a strategic investment in the organisations and activities that help startups to succeed, for example investing in key tech conferences as well as programmes to increase the number of startups and extracurricular activities in schools.

And Forbes, who was addressing the conference on 1 December virtually, said she wants a formal partnership to be established with the tech industry to push the reforms through. However she acknowledged: “We need to work together to implement Logan. I’m fully aware that this isn’t going to be easy but I don’t shirk from the challenge; some of those recommendations will be trickier to implement than others but what I want to emphasise is that the report shows that a full-system approach is needed and that is something that I wholeheartedly agree with and want to commit to.”

In sections of the 89-page report Logan is at times frank about the current failings of the education sector to adequately serve the tech economy; he describes an unsatisfactory situation whereby computing science is often taught by non-specialist teachers because of the lack of dedicated staff, and as a result of reduced provision much of the curriculum is “boring”.

He says also that this “state of affairs” is not aligned to Scotland’s future economic needs, given that there is already a demand for 13,000 tech professionals annually who can command salaries that are 26 per cent above the average.

At higher education level, Scotland’s universities also do not adequately equip computing science undergraduates with the necessary entrepreneurial skills they need to build the next tech unicorn company, Logan says.

He cites the desired model as that of the US, where Stanford University in California created a “start-up-friendly, supportive environment” in the early days of Silicon Valley. He writes: “Of the 300 private tech companies valued at more than $1b in 2019, 63, or one fifth, of their founders studied at Stanford.”

Conversely, Logan identifies a weak culture of entrepreneurialism within Scotland’s universities, and that existing key performance indicators (KPIs) “risk operating to actively reduce institutional enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism to below its otherwise natural level” – because universities are partly measured on the number of students who finish courses.

“If Larry Page had attended a Scottish university, a KPI somewhere would have tipped towards amber when he co-founded Google, then towards red when Sergey Brin joined him,” he writes. “In effect, it is in the local interests of universities to disincentivise entrepreneurial startup activities, lest students drop out and form startups.”

One of the solutions Logan recommends is for universities to more actively bring together business students with computing science students, an intervention by which it is “likely that startups would emerge”.

Logan, who has become a tech investor, adviser and teacher at the University of Glasgow (where he teaches computing science students how to be tech entrepreneurs) since his departure from Skyscanner, was asked to conduct the review in May 2020. He carried out that work, pro bono, over summer as what he calls a “labour of love” and wanted to help draw together the tech sector to work more effectively and productively for Scotland as a whole, no matter where individuals or companies are based, a point that has taken on particular salience during lockdown. 

Eventually he hopes that the ecosystem will develop to a maturity which he calls “post-tipping point”, which means it will be self-sustaining and no longer require government intervention, in that it hosts a critical mass of viable startups.

Logan says: “The report takes a stance that we do a pretty good job as an ecosystem today but we could do much better. I’ve worked in the ecosystem for almost 30 years and the number of founders and startup companies and the quality of the talent is probably higher than it’s been for a very long time. But what the internet does is it doesn’t just bring the world’s customers to your door, it also brings the world’s competitors as well, and that requires our companies to be genuinely world-class so we can compete.”

At Digital Scotland, Logan also explained the ‘market square’ concept, which he describes in depth in the review. His take was that whilst all too often the focus of policymakers is on institutional support, there is often an undervaluation of the social infrastructure that underpins market activity.

He said it is vital that tech meet-ups, conferences and regular gatherings are well supported through the implementation of the review so that the connections that spark exchange can take place. 

He talked about the history of innovation and of periods of social, cultural and scientific upheaval that were founded on such exchange, such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. “Leonardo da Vinci was not a painter, a sculptor or an engineer or a mathematician or an anatomist, he was all of those things,” he explained. “And that made him good at everything he did because he was informed in his knowledge by all those different areas, but when he stepped out of his house into the market square in Florence he was able to interact with lots of people who were exactly the same.

“And that exchange of knowledge was what led to so many great discoveries and I think in our own way in Scotland during the Enlightenment we had similar conditions at play; so the social infrastructure, the market square is vital in my view to support the startup and learning and creative process.”