One notable thing about conferences since Covid struck is how moving to a virtual platform has allowed events to draw an increasingly global crowd. As Ray Bugg, founder at technology events player Digit, which is running the seventh annual Financial Technology Conference this week, said: “Digit took the decision to pivot to virtual events early in the pandemic.
"It was imperative we created something more than ‘Death by Zoom’ that would allow delegates to network, collaborate and interact. Also, attendees are no longer constrained by geography… Our sponsors now have a richer environment to demonstrate their products and services and post-event analytics that are undeliverable by physical events.”
I’ve been fortunate to support Turing Fest, Startup Summit and EIE, three of Scotland’s other main tech conferences, through the years and they form an important part of the fabric of the sector, something emphasised in Mark Logan’s recent Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review.
Personal highlights from these conferences include hanging out with CodeBase founder and chairman Jamie Coleman and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in 2012, walking through Edinburgh with RocketSpace founder Duncan Logan en route to The Scotsman for an interview during Startup Summit in 2016, and a late night malt whisky session with Chris van der Kuyl and a celebrated tech journalist from Forbes following EIE17.
EIE, Scotland’s top tech investor conference, is the one I know best – both in terms of the EIE team itself and the slew of start-ups who have come through the year-round programme now run out of the University of Edinburgh’s Bayes Centre. EIE has supported more than 500 start-ups who have raised in excess of £750 million in investment.
It was launched in 2008 to bring tech founders together with investors who could help fuel their ambition, and in 2020 it is comforting to see that investors continue to invest in start-up talent. Many of this year’s company cohort are on a mission to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges – around health, including Covid, climate, energy, agriculture, cybersecurity and robotics.
The recent Logan Review pinpointed the importance of conferences like EIE to the greater good of the tech scene here: “We recommend that these conferences are internationalised to showcase start-ups regardless of their origin country, and that a level of public finance is provided to ensure that ticket prices and pitch-entry prices are not prohibitive. This is to attract external investors and global industry expertise to Scotland that won’t come to see a solely domestic portfolio.”
Having said that, investors from outside Scotland should not underplay the opportunity they have to meet Scotland-headquartered start-ups, as we have produced successful homegrown ventures. Many investors’ first chance to see fantasy sports focused FanDuel, which became Scotland’s first billion dollar-valued tech start-up in 2015, was at EIE in 2010, and virtual reality audio start-up Two Big Ears pitched at EIE15 before being acquired by Facebook.
This year’s EIE20 is on 14 October, with an investor-only event with Logan and a webinar for global delegates both taking place the day before. Another conference runs on 13 October with the inaugural edition of Ada Scotland, referencing English computer pioneer Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace.
Organised by the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing, it aims to improve gender balance in computing and help girls and young women get inspired about opportunities to study and work in computing and IT.
Nick Freer is founding director of the Freer Consultancy
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