A select group of entrepreneurs from several UK-based tech startups travelled California last week to take part in the Silicon Valley Accelerate programme; bringing together innovative minds from both sides of the Atlantic.
Led by Leith-based organisation, FutureX, the Accelerate program aims to develop close ties between British and US firms, while providing UK startups with the opportunity to network with – and learn from – industry leaders in America’s tech heartland.
The week-long global leadership programme was started by WeAreTheFuture founder Bruce Walker and, since its inception, has grown to count a number of successful alumni in its ranks; including Chris McCann, founder of medical technology firm Snap40 and Scottish EDGE winner Cameron Graham, the founder of care management software company Storii Care.
Storii Care secured a pitch in front of Californian venture capital firm Sequoia Capital after participating in the Accelerate programme.
This year’s participants visited San Francisco for a roundtable discussion with Scottish-born Rocketspace founder Duncan Logan, who spoke to them about the driving force behind the continual innovation in Silicon Valley – an ecosystem that regularly produces superstars.
Digit spoke to Bruce Walker about what the participants are learning on their trip. Asked at how Scottish firms can replicate the same levels of success, why culture plays a crucial role in success and how they can match the innovation seen in Silicon Valley?
Scotland has a vibrant, innovative tech scene with firms such as FanDuel and Skyscanner gaining global recognition since their modest beginnings. Despite these successes Scotland still has a long way to go to gain global recognition. According to Bruce Walker, the Scottish scene isn’t even on the radar in the US, with American firms failing to notice innovation outside of London, he said:
“It’s not even on their radar. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but they somewhat arrogantly believe that Silicon Valley is the centre of the universe and that the UK tech scene consists of London.”
Bruce continued, noting that US firms who have visited Scotland regularly highlighted a lack of clear investment in the scene which is damaging its’ ability to compete on a global scale, saying “they all notice that we are still far too risk adverse and are not deploying nearly enough capital to compete on an international scale.”
Despite a lack of recognition, Bruce claims that when the Scottish tech scene has been observed the culture within is showered with praise, and big moments have been noted.
He said: “For those few who have visited Scotland they are very complementary and recognise that it has a strong startup culture.
“Those who are familiar with Skycanner and FanDuel also note how impressive it is to be the first companies to reach a $1 billion value, especially as they note that it takes an entire ecosystem to raise a unicorn.”
Experiences such as the Accelerate programme allow UK firms the opportunity to branch out and create closer ties with their global counterparts, which according to Bruce will help startups in the long-term by providing them with inspiration and examples of how to operate.
“These cross-country engagements are so important. We have spent a long time building relationships with some of the top investors, founders and executives who have so much knowledge to share.
“As Scotland continues to develop it’s thriving tech ecosystem, it’s good to get advice from those who have been around the best for a long time.”
For Scottish firms, it will be difficult to reach the same levels of success seen in Silicon Valley, as according to Bruce “there are only 5.5 million people in the Country which is not a big enough market to build a big global technology business”.
However, Bruce says these international engagement programmes do offer the chance to learn and provide the tools to develop Scotland’s scene in the long-term. Being in with the crowd is better than being out in the dark. He said:
“If you really want to be a global player, then you need to hang out with the people who have the experience of building hugely successful companies, Silicon Valley has several generations of people who have built big tech companies, so it will take time for other ecosystems to develop that.”
What Can we Do?
Can Scottish firms reach the same dizzying heights as American giants? Bruce believes that for future growth in the Scottish tech industry, firms will have to ‘go big or go home’.
Scottish firms have to adopt a “we will” attitude instead of “we aim to” if they are to match the success seen in Silicon Valley. In addition to an optimistic outlook, firms must increase focus on what it is they’re creating – Having a clear-cut vision of their product or service can help eliminate stagnation and drive innovation.
“Focus, focus focus. Everyone we encounter through the [Silicon Valley] ecosystem talks about the need for laser focus.”
For this to happen cultural changes may have to be made as Bruce believes that “in Scotland people view ‘purpose’ as a nice to have piece of text that they put on their website” whereas in the US companies “live and breathe their purpose and everything is focused on achieving it; purpose comes first and then money and profit naturally follows you.”
When participants of the Accelerate programme spoke to Eric McAfee – founder of Cagan McAfee Capital Partners – on their visit to California, he highlighted the need for a positive culture from day one. Creating the attitude and mentality of a big company from the beginning will breed optimism success.
For Scottish firms the environment is different to that found in Silicon Valley. Although the scene is booming and vibrant, Scottish firms don’t have the same security as their American counterparts. Bruce says that Scottish entrepreneurs “tend to be more aware of how they will get to revenue and profit quicker as the environment in Scotland demands that.”
American firms have greater freedom to create and thrive due to the sheer amount of money in the scene: “In Silicon Valley many startups don’t have to worry about revenue and profit in the beginning as other metrics like user growth is enough to continue to raise money.”
What Can Scotland Offer?
The challenges faced by Scottish firms differ from their American counterparts and yes, the scene pales in comparison. However Bruce says that does not mean Scotland has nothing to offer. In fact, the scene here is leading the way in certain industries; specifically medicine.
Additionally, the infrastructure both at home and across Europe provides firms in these specific sectors better opportunities to develop and create that in the US.
“In the health tech space, Scotland and Europe are much better are providing access to health data which means that health tech companies are able to actually test their products and feed their machine learning platforms with real data.
“Whereas in the US because it’s all private health care and hospitals here are essentially run in fear of insurance and litgation, access to health data is very, very difficult.”