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'Seat of enlightenment': How Edinburgh became startup city of the year

When asked what makes Edinburgh a worthy winner of 2016’s entrepreneurial city of the year award, Jim Galloway, head of enterprise and innovation at the city council, said: “Edinburgh was the original seat of enlightenment in the 18th century. David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns walked the streets of Edinburgh, they bumped into each other, and into the common people as well. This is still part of what Edinburgh is today. We are now the seat of the enlightenment point two.”

It was Galloway, remembers Lucy-Rose Walker, CEO of accelerator Entrepreneurial Spark, who had the vision to turn Edinburgh into a startup hub. He’d been inspired after hearing about Boston, which is among the top startup hubs in the US.

“He always said he wanted to make Edinburgh an incubator – for the city to be seen as one,” she says. Entrepreneurial Spark worked closely with Galloway when it opened an office in the city in 2013. “I certainly think that’s what they’ve been able to achieve.”

Edinburgh beat London, Cambridge and Manchester to the title at the Great British Entrepreneur awards, judged on its quality of life, access to capital and talent, entrepreneurial culture and access to support networks. One of the judges, Michael Baxter, group editor of the Fresh Business Thinking group, said about the decision: “If you talk to the people in Edinburgh who are trying to drive its entrepreneurism, you detect pride, a real sense they love the city and want it to thrive.”

Edinburgh is home to two unicorn startups, so-called because they’ve been valued at more than $1bn (£800bn), FanDuel and Skyscanner, the latter of which was recently bought by the Chinese company Ctrip for £1.4bn. Gareth Williams set up the business in his spare room in 2003. He has seen the city’s business landscape change considerably over that time.

“In the years following the dotcom bust, being an internet economy startup in Edinburgh felt a little lonely. The scene could not be more different now,” he says. “There’s a real kinship between fellow startups and internet economy businesses here … the community is incredibly open in sharing lessons, something that is both refreshing and valuable.”

Mentorship and a strong network is something that comes up time and time again, when entrepreneurs are asked what makes Edinburgh a worthy winner of this award. CEO of cyber security firm ZoneFox, Dr Jamie Graves, says the tech scene in particular is booming, partly because of other success stories.

“We’ve got Skyscanner and FanDuel leading the way. In terms of the quality of mentoring support, you have got a lot of people who have started and exited their businesses and still live up here … [and] you’ve got people who’ve made some cash, who are interested in seed or angel investment.”

He adds that Edinburgh’s relatively small size as a city, makes it the perfect microcosm for entrepreneurs, and has been an asset when it comes to boosting innovation and trying your idea out on the market. There are an estimated 498,800 people living in the city, compared to London’s 8.67 million.

“It’s a small place, but you can reach different types of industries and perspectives in order to test your ideas out quite quickly,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a solid career path any more … If you’ve got an idea, everyone else is doing it, why not you.”

One woman who asked herself that very question was Alex Feechan, founder of FINDRA, which specialises in female mountain biking and outdoor wear. Feechan was a successful knitwear designer with 20 years’ experience when she received an email from Scottish Enterprise inviting ideas for a cycling or mountain biking business. Feechan had taken up mountain biking a year or two before but had been disappointed with the women’s clothing, describing it as a “pink it and shrink it” version of the men’s line.

“It’s bizarre,” she says. “I remember the day I received it. I was in a really good job, but I thought ‘yeah, I’ve got an idea’.”



Alex Feechan, founder of FINDRA. Photograph: Graham Riddell Photography

It seems an incredibly proactive move from a government body, but one that is indicative of how the organisation works. Scottish Enterprise had recognised the growing interest in cycling in the country, particularly among tourists, and wanted to encourage homegrown entrepreneurs to explore the market further.

Eleanor Mitchell, entrepreneurial growth and grant management director for Scottish Enterprise, says the organisation’s approach to startups has changed considerably over the past couple of years – particularly when it comes to talent coming out of Edinburgh’s six universities. The city’s student population makes up approximately 7% of all of its residents, aged 16-64.

“[Back then] we were at the start of a review [with the Stanford Research Institute] of how we support entrepreneurship and commercialisation of university technology in particular,” Mitchell says.

“[We looked at] how we translate more of that academic strength into commercial opportunities in Scotland that [can] grow to scale. How do we get the right people with commercial experience alongside our technology entrepreneurs … how do we get them to understand their competition on an international marketplace, and get out there?”

International vision is a key focus for Scottish Enterprise, which Mitchell says is needed if these businesses are to grow to scale and benefit the broader economy. With its support, and that of the Scottish Development Initiative, Feechan was taken to a cycling trade show in Europe before FINDRA had even launched, where she met potential wholesale customers and the cycling industry media.

“I got a huge amount of feedback and interest, plus some really good PR,” she says. The business, which launched in December 2014, now has a commercial agreement with the online cycling superstore, Wiggle, and won an international bike industry design and innovation award.

Feechan believes much of her success has been down to her involvement with Entrepreneurial Spark, which taught her how to think like a business owner. “What it does that is different from government funded bodies is it focuses on what the entrepreneur has to do themselves to achieve their goals and vision.”

A Scottish export itself, Entrepreneurial Spark now has 12 offices around the UK – Edinburgh was its third. The accelerator works with an estimated 1,000 entrepreneurs a year across the UK, including around 100 companies in the Scottish capital.

“We really felt we needed to be there because you could see the entrepreneurial spirit in the city, which was growing,” Walker says. “Our ethos is about putting the entrepreneur at the heart of everything we do, and every decision is based on that. The city council have [also] been doing that … There’s a can-do attitude.”

And while there are bigger markets around the world, Williams at Skyscanner believes their future would not have been so bright if they’d moved somewhere else. “At one point in our early years we debated whether we should move to somewhere like Silicon Valley, I don’t believe we’d have been so successful had we started out there, in such a fail-fast environment.”

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