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Scotland’s Start-ups Have Their Charm: EIE IO

Brian Baglow

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EIE18

Start-ups, self-confidence and social good. The eleventh annual EIE showcased a country poised to pivot, disrupt and (finally) accept being awesome.

DIGIT, it must be said, does a lot of shows. We do conferences. We do expos. We do workshops, exhibitions, congresses, festivals and even the occasional summit. We’re hardened veterans of the conference circuit. In short, it takes a lot to make us consider an event something of real value and more than an opportunity for editorial.

The eleventh annual EIE event, which took place in the University of Edinburgh’s rather breathtaking McEwan Hall yesterday, was just such an event.

While on the surface the format was similar to those which have evolved over the last ten years, there was a sense of something more, something emerging behind the scenes, which was palpable to everyone involved.

Engage Invest Exploit

If you’re not familiar with EIE (the acronym stands for Engage Invest Exploit), the event allows start-ups to pitch directly to investors. Sixty of Scotland’s most ambitious technology young, high growth companies were present as exhibitors and delivering either rapid-fire 60 second pitches, or extended six minutes pitches to a panel of angels and venture capitalists.

Alongside that, an audience of several hundred industry experts, business leaders, founders, CEOs – and even the media – were present to hear from speakers including Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, Passion Capital’s Eileen Burbidge, ZoneFox founder Dr Jamie Graves and the founders famed Scottish tech unicorn, FanDuel – Nigel and Lesley Eccles and Rob Jones.

EIE is always fun. Scotland is a small country. The tech sector , the investment community and the major players are all part of a fairly tight-knit community. It’s an opportunity to catch up with former colleagues, make new connections and get a sense of the key trends and changes in the digital technology sector, from a uniquely Scottish perspective.

EIE 2018 was different. All of the elements were familiar. The investors were there, a hand-picked selection of companies were present, the audience included everyone great, good, interesting, influential or otherwise significant in the digital technology world.

More Than the Sum of its Parts

Yet this year, the event was more than the sum of its parts. There was a sense of change, of transformation from almost every quarter. While many of the topics which were discussed, debated, pitched, presented and on display, this year they were a far more integral and accepted part of the discussions.

Issues such as gender diversity, social good, ‘giving back’, inclusion and accessibility were fundamental to far more companies present, an integral part of many presentations and took place within a context of ongoing change and evolution. Many of the companies which were pitching, exhibiting or attending had social benefit baked into their DNA, from ethical charty giving, to health and social care, to recyclable waste and ethical advertising.

Instead of the focus being entirely on the cool companies, the awesome services and innovative products, EIE 18 took place within the context of a country and a society which seems to have embraced change and innovation as a good and necessary thing.

Change for Good

Over the last 12 months, Scotland as a whole seems to have accepted that change is happening and which is getting on with making things happen. This is not a top-down government-driven initiative, although the Scottish government has very publicly stated its commitment to making the country a global leader in innovation.

It’s a growing number of initiatives, from schools and colleges where an inclusive approach to STEM subjects is spreading, to the start-up community where building a company or organisation in which social benefit is built in from the outset. It’s the growing number of founders and CEOs and business leaders actively looking to give back to the organisations and communities which helped them to thrive.

It was obvious in the fact that ‘technology’ was not addressed as an isolated industry, but as an enabler for all businesses and organisations.

It was in fact, a huge number of small things, which upon reflection highlighted a country on the brink of a step change. This is by no means a Utopian reality. There remains a huge amount of work to be done across every area of business and society. Some aspects of the tech sector remain closed to parts of the population, digital inclusion, education and access remain serious challenges for many.

Making it Happen

However, there was a sense that we’re starting to push against an open door. There was an acceptance and agreement from everyone at EIE18 that we know these issues need to be addressed and that – for the first time in DIGIT’s experience – everyone involved in getting on with actually sorting them out.

Dame Stephanie Shirley delivered a riveting keynote, in which she outlined her life in business – quietly, simply and directly. The decisions and doubts, the successes and failure. Her aspirations, challenges and mistakes. For almost an hour, the entire hall was silent. You could have heard a pin drop. One elderly lady, who’s tried her best to make a difference and who is still determined to make a difference through her work with charity – and talking to a darkened room full of hardened business professionals on a sunny day in Edinburgh.

Likewise, Eileen Burbidge, a partner in Passion Capital, spoke about the rapid pace of technology, the nature of the investment community in the UK and the rise of the technology giants. However, she spent longer looking at technology as an enabler for social good, the power of positive thinking, rewarding staff and taking responsibility for services, rather than blaming consumers for using them inappropriately. She also called for a more collaborative and joined-up approach to get companies out of their own little clusters, hubs and communities and start thinking more globally.

Collaboration, Communication, Community

Everything pointed towards a new attitude and a new perspective which went beyond individual businesses and started looking at how we can all contribute to a a more connected, ethical, collaborative and data fluent future which can benefit us all.

The perfect example is the winner of the Pitch of the Day which went to Amy Williams, co-founder and CEO of Good Loop, an opt-in advertising platform which donates 50% of ad revenues to a charity of the viewers choice. Innovative, interesting and turning the ‘exploitative’ models of the past on their heads, with massive commercial potential.

Outside the ‘unicorns’, it can be difficult to see Scotland as a pioneer or leader when it comes to technology, or indeed social good. EIE18 was a timely reminder than we are actually moving in the right direction and a growing number of people are making many good things happen.

Congratulations to everyone involved in EIE18. It was an important event. Let’s keep going.

Movers and shakers

Brian Baglow

Editor

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