Mark Logan’s tech eco-system report reminds BILL MAGEE of an earlier technology revolution
It’s an odd feeling. Let’s just say my tech antenna began twitching. As if we’ve been here before. I had just come off the phone from discussing two well-established and respected Scottish tech initiatives, each remodelling its annual flagship event online in light of COVID-19. Then the much anticipated Scottish Government-commissioned report from ex-Skyscanner chief operating officer Mark Logan hit my e-desk.
It felt odd for two reasons.
Firstly, how to be in total agreement with practically every word of this undoubtedly groundbreaking report on the future of Scotland’s technology sector – and how to better place it at the centre of an economic drive for growth out of this commercially devastating pandemic – yet also wonder just how, and especially when, any of it can be implemented, what with the lingering Coronavirus, but also an annual Scots public spending deficit that’s topped £15 billion and rising.
The second reason?
I wondered what either of the tech institutions mentioned above thought of such a report.
They’ve been beavering away for years and recording increased results annually by unearthing and nurturing bright, early stage tech enterprises. They must have been feeling justified in thinking they’re doing a good job.
Then comes along a report that implies they’ve failed to make the grade. That they don’t quite fit in with the fresh thinking.
Of course, highly-respected businessman Mark Logan, who as COO was instrumental in transforming the flight comparison website into a “unicorn” worth over $1.5 billion, is to be commended for his comprehensive list of recommendations to rejuvenate the tech sector and, in turn, the economy.
We’re talking about a sector that in 2018 contributed £4.9bn to the Scottish economy and supported almost 100,000 jobs, but is now viewed as commercially lacking in “cutting edge” when it comes to promoting Scotland’s undoubted world class technology on the world stage.
I bounced the report off one Silicon Glen veteran, who wished to remain anonymous.
He lamented that some of the proposals are not exactly new, but do remain crucial if Scotland is to transform itself into an eye-catching international digital powerhouse attracting scores of venture capitalists to our shores, eager to invest dollars, or yuan, new shekel.
We’ve kind of been here before. I recall when covering Scotland for Reuters in the Nineties a similar “powerhouse” sentiment was uttered about the Glen, a term in use since the 1980s and applied to Scotland’s Central Belt triangle.
A steady stream of household name electronics firms beat a path to Scotland to set up shop, attracted by generous and flexible Regional Selective Assistance grants. Heady days.
Yet despite Scotland at its peak producing 30% of Europe’s PCs, 80% of its workstations, 65% of its ATMs, and significant numbers of integrated circuits, guess what happened? We were criticised for being a “screwdriver economy.”
Then our tech bubble burst along with the year 2000 global IT collapse and many visiting firms moved on with heavy jobs losses the outcome.
‘Scotland already has a sizeable cluster of tech incubator centres. I haven’t got room here to list them. Some might say there are too many such separate entities‘
Fast forward 20 years. The key headline proposals from the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review, readily adopted by the government, include creating a new fund to make strategic investments, six nationwide “Tech-Scaler” centres combining high-quality incubator, networking and educational facilities to be up-and-running by 2022, all backed up by a step-up in teaching computer science in our schools, colleges and universities.
I immediately find myself at something of a quandary.
Scotland already has a sizeable cluster of tech incubator centres. I haven’t got room here to list them. Some might say there are too many such separate entities. And that’s the point. Far too many competing for a reduced pot of funding.
EIE20, Converge Challenge, Holyrood Connect, DIGIT and Strathclyde University’s tech initiatives must not get lost in the haar. They can still play their part in lifting Scotland’s digital offering. Same goes for newcomer Invest Scotland.
One other recommendation is direct return flights to Silicon Valley.
Having been there on numerous occasions, it is true VCs with ready cash in their pocket book and tech entrepreneurs looking for that next bright idea (often the same person) are really impressed if one makes the effort to call on them in the flesh.
Currently, no matter how one spins it, upwards of an entire day is taken up getting out there. At its worst, two long-haul flights with a typical three-hour airport wait in between. We’re not talking holiday here.
Finally arriving at that vital Valley investors’ meet-up straight off the plane, bleary eyed and rough around the edges. A long haul for a three-minute elevator pitch.
Let’s crack a deal with an airline to send over direct the cream of Scotland’s tech talent and blow the socks off the Yanks. After COVID-19, of course.