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A Blessing of Unicorns

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Three facts: a herd of unicorns is called a blessing, Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn, and a unicorn can also mean a startup valued at over 1 billion USD. Given these facts, it was pretty much impossible not to title my recent talk on Edinburgh’s entrepreneurial ecosystem “A Blessing of Unicorns.”

You can see the slides from the talk here.

Edinburgh is a very strange entrepreneurial ecosystem. On a per capita basis, it has the third highest number of unicorns in the world, more than New York City, Berlin, and Bejing and behind only Silicon Valley and Provo, Utah.

unicorns

Lots of Unicorns. A Blessing Even!

For the past few months I’ve been carrying out a study of Edinburgh’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. I recently published a white paper summarizing my initial findings, which you can read here. I was primarily looking at the role of entrepreneurship support programs in helping to create a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Support programs, often run by the public sector, are a crucial part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. They help correct for the market failures that often face early stage companies: entrepreneurs may have great vision and technology, but they’ll always experience trouble convincing investors and customers of this. Programs can help entrepreneurs by providing them with training, grants, and help build their social networks to connect with other entrepreneurs and advisors.

I identified 43 different entrepreneurship support programs in Edinburgh. These ranged from large, publicly funded programs organized by Scottish Enterprise and Scotland-wide business plan competitions like the Converge Challange to smaller programs put on by local entrepreneurs, such as coffee meetups and organized drink nights. This is by any account a conservative estimate, almost every week I hear about a new program that just started up or an existing one that had slipped under my radar.

I interviewed the leaders of 26 of these programs to get a better sense of what they do and who they work with. The most interesting finding was how tightly networked all these programs are. As you can see below, this is a really, really dense network of support programs. There are almost no isolated programs with none or just one connection to other programs.

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Networks of entrepreneurship programs in Edinburgh

What does this mean? What I observed in Edinburgh was that individual programs were able to specialize in providing specific types of support to specific types of entrepreneurs. This can be helping early stage biotech entrepreneurs network with potential investors or organizing startup competitions for student entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs change, the the leaders of support programs can connect them with other programs that provide more relevant services. This is only possible given the strong connections between programs. Allowing programs to specialize mean that they can provide more material support for a small subset of entrepreneurs rather than being everything for everyone.

What does this mean for Edinburgh’s ecosystem? On one hand, it’s a good thing. Lots of programs mean that entrepreneurs can pick programs that provide the right resources and support for them without having to endure generic programs that aren’t very relevant to them.

However, I’m a bit concerned that the Scottish Government has a bit too much power in creating and running these support programs. In my study, about 80% of the programs I interviewed got their funding in some way through either Scottish Enterprise or another Scottish Government funding body. One of the defining characteristics of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it is primarily run by and for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs themselves should be identifying their needs and helping to create organizations to deal with the issues they encounter. The role of the government should be to sit back and support the entrepreneurs doing this. Otherwise the state risks investing resources in areas that aren’t affecting entrepreneurs. Programs like StartEDIN are great examples of entrepreneurs coming together to identify common problems and working towards solutions. This should be encouraged rather than crowded out through public investment.

This post has originally been published on Ben’s personal blog, available here.

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