Building the Digital Tech Ecosystem in Scotland

The entrepreneurial ecosystem in Scotland is thriving. We talk to Marc Strathie from ScotlandIS about policy making, startup support, and the future of climate tech.

Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, Aerospace Xelerated caught up with Marc Strathie, Head of Research and Policy at ScotlandIS. It was great to first meet Marc at the Boeing Innovation Forum in Glasgow earlier this October — you can read the event highlights from Nichola Bates, Head of Global Accelerators and Innovation Programs at The Boeing Company, here.

Marc has a background in Eastern European and U.S. Foreign policy as well as experience working at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in Bristol. We talk to Marc about his policy work, how he became a big advocate for startups in Scotland, and why technology will play an important role in climate change or, rather, climate opportunity.

Hi Marc! We’re excited to have you with us at Aerospace Xelerated. To start, it would be great to hear about your background in policy and your work prior to joining ScotlandIS.

Head of Research and Policy at ScotlandIS

It’s great to be here! I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow in History, Politics, and International Relations. Throughout my degree, I started to get interested in domestic and foreign policy. I saw that as being an area that I wanted to explore further and an area I wanted to specialise in. I did my year abroad for Erasmus in Prague, and it was there that I started getting interested in Eastern European policy. For my Masters, I wanted to take a different approach and look at things from the U.S. angle, their history, and their foreign policy, so I entered into a Master's degree in American History at the University of Edinburgh. I looked at the transition from Ronald Reagan to George H. W. Bush and the diplomacy and policy involved during their presidential terms. It was then that I developed an initial interest in defence policy and in the negotiation side of things, how policy development can happen organically, how it takes place behind the scenes and what stakeholders were involved, and whatnot.

I chose to pursue my graduate job at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in Bristol. I was working in the policy and the risk management function of the MoD, and it was a great place to start my career. I really enjoyed the external aspect and the opportunity to work with stakeholders like The Boeing Company, Babcock International, and Airbus. It gave me a good understanding of the Civil Service as a whole but also the governmental side of policy. Shortly after, I moved back to Scotland to start work as a Policy and Research Analyst at the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), a non-governmental, membership organisation, that aims to strengthen Scotland’s economic competitiveness. I had a fantastic time there working with a whole host of different organisations across Scotland, from large oil and gas companies right down to the startups and SMEs. It was there that I came to realise that policy was where I wanted to spend my career.

At the start of the pandemic in April 2020, I joined ScotlandIS. We had worked on a number of different reports together on digital and connectivity policy while I was at SCDI. The role of Research and Policy Manager came up and I thought that digital technology was an area that would continue to grow over the coming years. That’s a whistle-stop tour of my background.

Photo by Connor Mollison on Unsplash

ScotlandIS is building, supporting and enabling the digital technology ecosystem. In your policy role, what are you currently working on? What are some of your priorities right now?

Digital and tech is obviously the bread and butter of my work, however, there’s so much more involved in the role as well, whether it’s the broader economic development of the sector or looking for opportunities in aviation, retail, and other industries. At ScotlandIS, we released our manifesto at the start of 2021, at the start of the Scottish elections, and our manifesto was essentially our focus for the next few years and a call to action for the new Scottish government who was coming into force at the time about the areas that we wanted to focus on.

The first area that we looked at was emerging technologies, which encompasses a whole range of areas like climate, space, medical, legal, education, and much more. We specialise in climate tech, space tech, and also government tech and these are the areas that we really hone in on. Our reason for choosing these three key areas were strategic because we’ve done quite a few significant pieces of work around climate tech for example so that was an area that we really wanted to focus on, especially with COP26 around the corner.

The second focus area is around the skills agenda. We work very closely with Skills Development Scotland and other government agencies around the broader upskilling and rescaling agenda. During the pandemic, many people were displaced and unfortunately, lost their jobs. We started thinking: how can the digital and tech sector provide an opportunity for some of these individuals to transfer their skills from hardest-hit sectors like tourism and hospitality to the digital tech sector? There is a big piece of work for us around upskilling and reskilling, and our priority is to better understand how we can get more people and more talent into the sector because, frankly, last year the digital tech sector had 15,500 job vacancies so we clearly have a talent pipeline issue. For us, the skills agenda is a top priority over the coming years.

When you’re working in policy, yes, you can have a vision and set out a strategy but you also need to have flexibility.

Then, probably the final piece which has been a big focus, and in some ways related to the skills piece, has been on the subject of migration and migration policy. We’ve worked very closely with the Home Office over the last couple of years. We’ve held a number of roundtables with Kevin Foster MP, Under Secretary of State for Immigration, and invited him up to Scotland to speak to our members. A significant part of that conversation focused on how we resource and ensure that the tech sector has access to the talent that it needs to grow and thrive to continue to be a success story for the Scottish and also the UK economy.

We’ve worked closely with the Home Office to make sure that tech is on the shortage occupation list and explore possibilities around a potential tech visa. We will see how that pans out over the next 20 years or so but I certainly think it’s an important area for the sector because the access to talent for your organization is only as good as the people and if we’re experiencing a crisis with recruitment then that will inevitably have an impact across the tech sector.

These are our three main areas but, of course, we’re responsive to a variety of challenges across sectors. When you’re working in policy, yes, you can have a vision and set out a strategy but you also need to have flexibility. For example, even just looking at the pandemic, no one could foresee that. It’s a balance of making sure we have a strategy in place for the sector and for our members but also making sure that you’re able to adapt to different changes.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

You mentioned that climate tech is a focus area for ScotlandIS. We were recently at the Boeing Innovation Forum in Glasgow. Looking back at those two days, what were some of your personal highlights?

It was great to be back out again and to catch all of the varied sessions. Unfortunately, I missed the First Minister of Scotland on the first day, and I would have liked to hear from her. I think that the relationship between the UK government and the aviation sector has been somewhat tense so it was good to see a governmental presence at the conference.

In terms of the sessions I attended, being able to go on the ecoDemonstrator was really interesting and we were having a conversation about how it was an electrically powered aircraft but also using jet fuel. It gave me some food for thought, certainly about how the digital technology sector can play its part in this and how we can hopefully drive that towards fully electric as well. It did leave me with some questions about how the technology sector becomes part of the journey to Net Zero in aviation.

One thing I’ve always been passionate and conscious about was that the tech ecosystem should include everyone: startups, corporates, SMEs, academia, and everyone in between.

I also really enjoyed the session about recovery and it was interesting to hear one of the statistics that 93% of domestic flights have recovered to pre-COVID activity, more than anyone could have expected. However, 2019 activity, getting back to level, that’s not necessarily about growth, that’s just about getting back to the status quo. In some ways, it was good to see the bounce back in terms of consumer or business but at the same time, there’s still a lot more work to be done.

The final session with Nicola Bates chairing the startup piece was of course a highlight too. It was great to hear from a variety of individuals, both from the corporate world but also from the startups themselves. One of the questions was around building the startup ecosystem, and one thing I’ve always been passionate and conscious about was that the tech ecosystem should include everyone: startups, corporates, SMEs, academia, and everyone in between. Thinking about the corporations here in Scotland, as an example, in the last couple of days, Barclays has announced a massive development project. I think these projects will be a good thing for the startup ecosystem because it offers more opportunities as well. I really enjoyed the conversations around the corporate-startup relationship and how we can all nurture and embed startups into our ecosystem.

Photo by Elizabeth Camp on Unsplash

Talking about startups and the thriving startup ecosystem here in Scotland. How is ScotlandIS supporting early-stage companies and founders?

We’re proud to have a very active startup community here in Scotland. At ScotlandIS, we represent the full tech ecosystem from the Microsoft and Cisco’s of the world right through to early-stage startups. In terms of our work as an organisation, if we just look at the start of the pandemic, we were able to launch our one-year free membership for startups. We find that while startups have fantastic ideas and tech capability, they often struggle with the network aspect. That’s really at the heart of our work at ScotlandIS, being a bridge between industry, academia, and government. The overall purpose of the membership is to allow the startup community in Scotland to have access to support from the Scottish government, procurement process in the industry and so many others. For example, we were excited to welcome Nichola Bates and Jacqueline Davidson from The Boeing Company to speak at one of our events around Aerospace Xelerated opportunities and the wide accelerator network.

From my point of view, one thing that I’m personally always keen to do is how can I reflect the voice of the startup community and policy. That’s not always easy because often startups can’t dedicate a great deal of time to policy processes and the policy making agenda. I’ve been fortunate to have engaged with a number of our startup members on some of their needs and requirements, and again, immigration has been a big challenge. Even looking at more mainstream needs like HR processes, we’ve been quite passionate about connecting the startups with some of our larger corporate members who can help out with this. The support mechanisms are there to be utilised however much they want.

In Scotland, we have the ‘tech scaler’ hubs delivering world-class training and mentoring for technology entrepreneurs and £4 million to support startups too. The Scottish Government is starting to recognise that we have an incredible startup community and I think a lot of that has come out of various conversations with ourselves at ScotlandIS, the Logan Report, and from academia as well. These are fantastic initiatives and the startup voice is certainly pretty strong in Scotland. That’s not to say that the work is done by any means but I believe we have the right vehicles of support: the Scottish Enterprise, organisations like Technology Scotland, FinTech Scotland, and many others.

Marc speaks at the Interface — Tackling Climate Change Challenges webinar

You’re a big advocate for Scotland becoming a world leader in digital, artificial intelligence, and tech in general. From your work to date, what steps should the government and industry take to continue to drive the tech agenda forward?

Over the years and before joining ScotlandIS, the government and industry in Scotland have had a fairly good relationship. In my previous role at SCDI, we made a recommendation to the Scottish Government to adopt an artificial intelligence strategy. We pulled together that report in partnership with ScotlandIS. We were lucky enough that the Scottish Government could see the value in that and that they ended up launching Scotland’s AI strategy, which was the first AI strategy in the UK. On the back of that, there’s an AI Leadership Council within the AI Alliance and a part of that is to ensure that the recommendations and the policies are put into practice.

I think it’s useful for the government to have evidence-based and evidence-led policy and research. They know that they can’t do it all themselves and, often, people working in government don’t have the same level of headspace as the rest of the ecosystem to have that broad, macro view. For think tanks and organisations like ScotlandIS and SCDI to be able to showcase our work to the government is an important part of that industry-government dynamic because if every single person or representative of a sector came to the government with their own views and ideas, they would simply be overwhelmed. To have one clear and consistent voice on behalf of the full industry, there’s something powerful in that.

Ultimately, ScotlandIS doesn’t act on behalf of any one particular company or organisation, it’s very much about what the industry wants. Moving forward, it’s important to continue to foster these relationships. What I would say is that it’s also essential for the government and industry to actually engage with the citizens as well and understand the policy impact, positive or negative, on the citizens and society.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

We spoke about the Boeing Innovation Forum earlier, one of the pre-events to COP26. With COP26 coming up next week, and ScotlandIS participating in the event, what are you most looking forward to? What are you hoping to see, hear and put into action?

I’m very much looking forward to COP26 and we can’t underestimate just what a global stage Scotland is taking in all of this. We also need to be mindful that the bigger the stage, the harder the fall. It’s important that we have tangible actions from this event.

What I’m most looking forward to, and there are a number of different things, is speaking about the Climate Tech Report and sharing the findings with others, and with individuals beyond the digital tech sector too. We’re keen on looking at the role of climate technologies in a whole host of different sectors. It’s important that we see some degree of action from world leaders and that we see some sort of legacy from this. COP26 is of symbolic importance, there’s absolutely no doubt about that, but it’s important that as a country, and as people, we can see the future and the legacy beyond the conference. First Minister of Scotland said that this is the “last chance for humanity” and it just goes back to the fact that we need to get serious about targets and policies. We need to be quite open and honest with our citizens as well on what is actually required as well and the scale of the challenges.

COP26 is of symbolic importance, there’s absolutely no doubt about that, but it’s important that as a country, and as people, we can see the future and the legacy beyond the conference.

On the flip side, what’s important is that we need to focus on the positives and the opportunities around not just climate tech, but climate change as a whole. I don’t really like using the words ‘climate change’, I prefer to use the word ‘climate opportunity’ because I see a lot of opportunities in this space every day. In the ecosystem, this goes beyond technology, we see great examples like vertical farming, electric flights, and Highlands and Islands Airport, which is set to be one of the first electric airports by 2030.

I hope the message of opportunity gets across. I would like to see the message of the scale of the challenge but I would also like to see a message around the opportunities and the scale of the prize. Ultimately, that prize is all the sweeter, the harder the challenge — that is certainly the way I see it.

Thank you Marc for sharing more about your policy work at ScotlandIS and the support structures in place for Scottish startups and SMEs.

Check out these great climate and technology reports from ScotlandIS and their partners.

Climate Tech Hub

Innovation Critical — Scotland’s Net Zero Mission and Climate Tech Opportunity

The Scottish Technology Industry Survey 2021

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Accelerating the aerospace sector | https://xelerated.aero | @aeroxelerated

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Ksenia Kurileva

Ksenia Kurileva

Operations and Marketing Manager at Metta | Programme at Aerospace Xelerated

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