Mark Logan: we need to focus long term (Pic: Terry Murden)
The Scottish government’s tech adviser explains to TERRY MURDEN how he is driven to make a difference
Mark Logan has just finished speaking at an awards ceremony for female company founders, appealing to the innovator in each member of the audience. His address draws inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci. As ideas and inventiveness go, he sets a pretty high bar.
Innovation is a theme running through the thoughts of the former Skyscanner executive who has been tasked with driving Scotland’s development as a tech nation capable of competing at the top table. Last summer he was appointed the government’s first chief entrepreneur, or entrepreneurial adviser, as he prefers to style himself. He came up with a plan and he is ready to be judged by his early progress.
There were three key strands in his strategy: transforming education, building the right infrastructure to create a dynamic tech ecosystem, and providing the funding needed to underpin it and help it grow.
Within weeks he was expressing frustration with the public sector and the slow pace of change in education. He complained that he was “not seeing enough people throwing themselves onto the barbed wire” alongside him.
That was last August, just a month into the role handed to him by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes after one of her advisers had heard him delivering a speech at Glasgow University on how to build a tech sector. Since then he’s spent a lot of time at the coalface of education, determined to ensure there is a cultural change as well as a greater supply of young people with the required skills.
There have been some positives and he says there is a lot going on to train teachers to teach new skills, but the bureaucratic obstacles will take some time to overcome.
“One of the challenges we face is that too many organisations have to come together to agree on anything,” he says. “We need a stronger decision making framework.”
Building the physical infrastructure has been easier. Seven ‘tech scalers’ to incubate start ups are operating, new collaborative ventures have been formed, including one allowing start ups to access NHS test beds to trial ideas and products. His recent Pathways report on encouraging more female-led businesses, co-authored with Ana Stewart, has made recommendations to bring incubators to those deemed to have caring responsibilities.
“We have all the assets we need – the universities, the Hunter Foundation, the Scottish National Investment Bank, competitions like Scottish Edge and AccelerateHER, the Barclays Labs…. as long as we coordinate what we are doing we have the capability to do things quickly.”
‘What keeps me awake at night is government not moving fast enough‘
He says funding to support all this and what needs to follow is not an issue at private sector level and that government support has been forthcoming to back his strategy, but he worries that it will be diverted by other priorities.
“What keeps me awake at night is government not moving fast enough. Over the long term I am optimistic as long as Scotland retains its attention span.
“If you look at Finland and Estonia you see countries producing far more startups than us and more unicorns. It tells you that if you create a long term plan and stick with it then you can build a strong tech sector. I am optimistic because that is what we are trying to do.”
He talks about a “spectrum of confidence” with complacency at one end and paralysis through fear at the other.
“There have been times when Scotland has been at both ends. For instance, we talk about our world class universities, but not so much about how we keep them world class.
“At the other extreme we have too often talked ourselves down, but that is almost certainly because of what happened to the industries that once dominated the economy – and our lives – and are no longer there. It knocked confidence when they disappeared and the country has taken a long time to recover.
“But what we now have is a generation of people with no recollection of those industries who have a different mindset, a sense of purpose and vision, driven to build businesses that tackle issues like climate change and make the world a better place. It’s our job to nurture their ideas and build something new.”
Logan grew up in Clydebank in the 1970s. As a teenager he was devastated by the loss of his older brother Paul in a drowning accident and says it made him determined to make his own life count to ensure his death was not in vain.
His mother was a teacher and his father a mechanic who worked in the shipyards, so he has first hand experience of what happened to those individuals and families when the yards and the giant Singer factory closed.
“Clydebank built a fifth of the world’s ships and when they were no longer there it disoriented the community. If you see everyone around you lose their pride you cannot be anything but deeply affected.
“It told me that a country has to keep re-inventing itself. Scotland became good at something – shipbuilding and heavy industry – and thought it would stay there. But we were still building things the same way and the world was doing it differently. It made me think about the need for renewal.”
‘I had grown up in a town that had taken on the world and won. That belief drives me now’
After leaving university Logan worked in a few tech start ups before meeting Gareth Williams, founder of the travel search engine Skyscanner where renewal became an underlying motivator.
“We talked about his plans and I thought that if we get this right it could be a phenomenal success.
“We wanted to take on Google and people said ‘you cannot do that from Scotland’, but I had grown up in a town that had taken on the world and won. That belief drives me now.”
While Williams focused on the product, Logan became chief operating officer, effectively running everything else. The company did turn out to be a phenomenal success, becoming a rare Scottish unicorn [a company valued at $1bn]. It was eventually sold to a Chinese rival and Logan opted to leave.
“We had grown at a rapid rate with a thousand employees in 10 offices around the world. Every six months we were creating a new company. I was tired and when the acquisition came I wanted to do something else. It was a great experience but I think the best time to leave something is when it hurts.”
He became a consultant and it was a paper he had written about how Scotland should organise its ecosystem that caught the attention of Ms Forbes’ adviser. She asked him to write a review and his appointment as chief entrepreneur soon followed.
He says she never asked him about his politics or whether he supported the SNP. However, there was an immediate backlash to his remuneration – £192,000 for eight days per month. Logan says this is a problem the country and the politicians need to address.
“I was disappointed that when I attended the economy committee two Conservative MSPs only asked about my compensation and whether my appointment was fair. They asked nothing about the economy.
“We need to get to grips about what matters here.
“If Scotland wants people to come out of industry to work for the government they have to wrestle with this.”
In any case, he doesn’t take his full pay.
“I am a consultant to the government and I only get get paid when I work and a lot of work I don’t charge for. I put in about 400 hours of work on the Pathways report and I didn’t bill for it.”
His initial contract is for two years and he waits to see how the new First Minister views his role. Clearly he would expect it to be business usual if Ms Forbes wins, but nothing can be taken for granted. He just hopes the new FM buys into his long-term plan.
How does he rate his achievements so far?
“There is a lot to do. We will never finish the job,” he says. “No one in Silicon Valley ever said ‘job done’. It is more about making sure we’re heading in the right direction.”
Occupation: Chief Entrepreneurial Adviser to the Scottish Government
Education: Glasgow University
Career highlights: Worked at a number of tech start ups; chief operating officer for Skyscanner; consultant; professor at Glasgow University; chief entrepreneur for Scottish government
What irritates you?
The declining quality of government in Westminster. Brexit disorder. The dumbest thing we have done. And the manipulation of public opinion through social media.
Running. Yoga. I spent seven years learning Chinese. It helped fill a void after being 24/7 at Skyscanner.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a fantasy dinner party who would you choose?
Henry George, author of a book called Progress and Poverty
Dylan Thomas, a master of language
My older brother Paul who drowned at the age of 19. There are a lot of conversations I never had with him as an adult. His death had a devastating affect on me but it also concentrated my mind. It gave me a desire to make my time count and be more extrovert like him.