The horizons are boundless

Can Do Forum Group
Pictured at The Scotland CAN DO Future Forum (front, l-r): Michelle Thomson, Roseanne Grant, Julie Grieve, Sandy Finlayson. Back: Craig Bunyan, Allan Hogarth, Alasdair Nimmo, Laura Westring, John Morrison

The Scotland CAN DO Future Forum at Stirling Codebase discussed how Scotland’s innovators and entrepreneurs can be encouraged, supported and inspired to think internationally

by Graham Lironi

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Scotland has a long heritage of entrepreneurship and innovation, with such companies as Nucana, Skyscanner, FanDuel and BrewDog among some of the most recent conspicuous successes. However, if the country is to realize its ambition to become a world-leading entrepreneurial and innovative nation, achieve sustainable economic growth and create opportunities to flourish, then we must work together to accelerate entrepreneurship and innovation across Scotland. The question is: how?

How can – and do – businesses benefit from the expertise of Scotland’s world-class universities?

Roseanne Grant We’ve been commercializing research from universities in Scotland for over 20 years through the Proof of Concept program and, in 2014, we developed the High Growth spin-out program where the focus is to put commercial acumen into the academic space as early as possible. We use experienced entrepreneurs, investors and trade partners to select those projects from universities we think have the best chance of commercial success. The secret is to put that commercial acumen alongside the academic ability early on, so that the focus switches from the technology onto the market potential.

Sandy Finlayson points to the need to scale the country’s young technology companies

Sandy Finlayson Scotland is not faring badly in terms of the number of university spin outs compared with the rest of the UK, apart from the magic triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Scotland boasts five of the top 200 universities in the world and there is enormous underexploited commercialization potential in our universities. The key thing is to attract more investment along with the experienced business leaders to scale our young technology companies.

John Morrison I don’t think we’ve got enough access to capital of the size required to take life science companies to scale and that’s something that the Scottish National Investment Bank is examining.

Craig Bunyan I would like to see more consultancies connecting with startups and giving them the opportunity to afford our expertise to give them more visibility to investors.

SF We ought to reflect on the Scottish National Investment Bank – it should be an investment fund rather than a bank – because the purpose of a bank is not to lend money but to look after its shareholder’s funds and make sure they get the money back. Banking the bankable is not the job of SNIB, it’s about supporting and developing companies that matter. The thing that really matters for government must be tax-paying jobs and these come from firms that are inevitably going to be supported by equity and not by debt.

Laura Westring We’ve seen a wave of resistance against venture capital, while a couple of tech companies recently had over-subscribed funding rounds and when they looked at the term sheets they decided that they have a product and a vision and people with high quality jobs that they want to protect and they’re more interested in the kind of investment that will allow them to fulfil their mission and not just take venture capital with a view to an exit in three to five years. We’re seeing these entrepreneurs approaching private investors instead – and not just any private individual with money to throw into the pot – but investors who are invested in the company’s mission.

What is the Scottish education sector doing to attract talent into the STEM subjects which provide many of the platforms for innovation?

LW When we seek to attract more women into STEM subjects there’s often a focus on coding but many women working in the software industry don’t come from a STEM background, so I think there’s some awareness-raising required about the kind of careers that are available in these industries. We need a combination of investing in STEM subjects, because we don’t have enough STEM teachers in Scotland, but also giving people an education that has an entrepreneurial spirit is very important.

Julie Grieve The STEM strategy is an excellent start, but it’s incumbent on all of us to do our bit here because what we don’t have yet is enough role models; enough understanding of what it looks like to do different roles in business; enough education within schools of what the current roles actually are.

Scotland’s tech sector has experienced strong growth in recent years, what opportunities lie in this sector and how can they be developed?

Laura Westring says Scotland can be used as a test bed to reimagine the global economy

LW There is an opportunity to bring people of all sectors together to reimagine how we live, work, play and learn and the point is to make Scotland the beacon for different economic models, where business has a purpose beyond just profit. There is a real thirst in Scotland to use Scotland as a testing ground to reimagine the global economy and this is linked to quality of life. Not only do we have a beautiful country that is welcoming but is also home to the kind of ventures that reach people’s hearts as well as their minds.

RG Talent is fundamental to this, and not just at start-up stage. We’re looking to build sustainable companies, and these come from more experienced entrepreneurs. Some of the high growth companies that we work with manage to attract significant investment, but if they can get over the first hurdle of investment and grow to circa 15 employees in the tech sector, for them to scale to 60 to 100 employees, in many cases the talent pool just isn’t here. Adversity can sometimes make you think differently and,taking the recent oil and gas downturn as an example, we had all these skills from people with huge international experience put back on to the market – but they didn’t necessarily have the entrepreneurial attitude, the risk mind-set that younger entrepreneurs have. So Scottish Enterprise launched Grey Matters, which brought these people together and tasked them to use their skills to form teams, and from those teams to form companies. That was the first program of its type in the world and has proven successful. Because of the skills issue, we need to look at everyone, not just new graduates.

What more can be done to help in this area?

SF Part of it is about associating countries with products. Germany is the world’s most successful exporter. It has the biggest trade surplus in the world and has very high export values and, despite being in the EU, has managed to achieve that because it makes good products. It is associated with world class engineering. I was staggered to discover that Scotch whisky is not only the biggest selling export in the UK – it is bigger than all the other food and drink exports put together.

RG When Edinburgh was recently nominated as the most vibrant tech sector outside of London, with Glasgow close behind, that might not have been a surprise to us, but I suspect it was on the world stage, where tartan and shortbread and whisky and tourism have been the traditional Scottish industries.

LW We’re talking about a kind of New Enlightenment; that’s the kind of branding we need for the kind of place Scotland wants to be in 2050 – a home of innovation and attracting businesses from across the world – but not just any business.

Last year, when the First Minister launched the Scotland CAN DO Unlocking Ambition Challenge, it was clear that this was a new fund for entrepreneurs to bring business to Scotland – but not just any old business. Let it be something that will change the world. There’s a way to differentiate ourselves; by valuing ourselves.

Around the table

The Forum was chaired by Insight’s Alasdair Nimmo, who was joined by:

  • Craig Bunyan, Scottish lead for Seymour Powell
  • Sandy Finlayson, chairman of Converge Challenge
  • Roseanne Grant, portfolio manager, high growth ventures, Scottish Enterprise
  • Julie Grieve, founder and CEO of CRITON Apps
  • Allan Hogarth, a director with the Scottish North American Business Council
  • John Morrison, associate at Shepherd and Wedderburn and an Entrepreneurial Spark mentor
  • Michelle Thomson is a co-founder and director of Momentous Change
  • Laura Westring, FutureX Innovation’s head of communication strategy