Scotland's future 'Unicorns' thrive after decade of tech success

Scotland's future 'Unicorns' thrive after decade of tech success 

New figures highlight a decade of growth in the UK's tech sector, with four more Scottish companies set to achieve the all-important $1bn 'unicorn' valuation

  • Scotland has produced three unicorn companies: BrewDog, FanDuel, Skyscanner.
  • The country is home to four futurecorns: Roslin Technologies and NuCana BioMed (Edinburgh), Interactive Investor (Glasgow) and Amphista Therapeutics (Motherwell)
  • Scotland has been one of the leading centres of UK tech which has grown tenfold in 10 years
  • By comparison, France, Germany, Sweden and Israel has created a combined 85 unicorns by 2020 and only France and Germany raised over £4.3bn in VC funding last year

Scotland continues to build fast-growing tech companies

Scotland’s track record for creating unicorn tech companies like BrewDog, FanDuel and Skyscanner is helping to create a new generation of fast-growing tech businesses.

These ‘unicorns’ - private companies valued at $1bn (£718m) or more - have inspired growth in four more Scottish businesses, now identified as ‘futurecorns’, fast-growing firms set to achieve the all-important $1bn valuation.

Four Scottish companies - Amphista Therapeutics in Motherwell; Roslin Technologies in Edinburgh; Interactive Investor in Glasgow; and NuCana BioMed in Edinburgh - are identified as Futurecorns, fast-growing companies set to achieve a $1bn valuation, according to analysis by and the Digital Economy Council.

Scotland’s futurecorns are part of the huge expansion of the UK tech sector, which has grown 10 fold in the last 10 years, enabling the creation of hundreds of fast growing tech companies across the country, including in Scotland.

Since 2010, the UK has experienced a sustained increase in the venture capital flowing into the tech sector, which has resulted in a huge expansion in the number of startups that are scaling rapidly in sectors as diverse as fintech, food delivery, e-commerce and healthtech. Scottish startups last year attracted £345m in venture capital investment, despite the pandemic and a recent report recognised that 13,000 digital tech job opportunities were created every year in Scotland.

10 years of unicorns and futurecorns

Over the course of 10 years, the number of unicorns - private tech companies valued at $1bn or more - has increased from eight in 2010 to 81 in 2020. Unicorns from 2010 including Betfair, Admiral Group and Ocado are now household names. Scotland has produced three unicorn companies: BrewDog, FanDuel and Skyscanner.

Meanwhile the number of futurecorns has accelerated from 10 to 126 in 2020. Over the same period, venture capital investment into the UK has increased from £1.2bn in 2010 to £11.3bn 10 years later.

These numbers demonstrate the extent to which the UK is catching up with the US and China in tech, with London now fourth behind the Bay Area, Beijing and New York, when it comes to the number of startups and unicorns created. No other European country has been able to grow at such a speed.

While France has invested millions of euros in its startup ecosystem, in 2020 it had only 17 unicorns, up from zero in 2010. Germany had 1 unicorn 10 years ago and 31 in 2020 - including companies such as insurtech platform Wefox, neobank N26 and travel e-commerce platform Omio.

UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said:

Tech companies across the UK are improving our lives through creativity and innovation. With three unicorns and four fast-growing scaleups, Scotland is one of the UK’s leading tech hubs.

The UK Government is dedicated to supporting investment in tech in Scotland. Our recent commitment to create five new innovation hubs in fields such as robotics and space technology will ensure the industry has a bright future.

UK Government Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said:

These latest figures show the UK’s tech scene is booming and I’m delighted to see so many of our stellar scale ups racing to becoming the next $1 billion businesses.

This government is unashamedly pro-tech and we’re investing heavily in world-class digital infrastructure and skills to back talent across the country and bring about a golden age of UK tech.

Growth continues in 2021

During 2021, the total number of unicorns and futurecorns has continued to grow. The UK has now created 91 unicorns - private companies valued at $1bn (£718m) or more - which are transforming how we live and work, including Hopin valued at £4bn, Zego, which recently reached unicorn status and Wise, valued at £3.5bn. A further 132 companies are now regarded as ‘futurecorns’ - companies with a value of between $250m (£179m) and $1bn (£718m) - which are on a path to unicorn status.

In Scotland, there are four of these fast-growing futurecorns. These are Amphista Therapeutics in Motherwell, a biopharmaceutical company creating therapeutics that harness the body’s natural processes to remove disease-causing proteins; Roslin Technologies in Edinburgh which is developing pioneering innovations to make the agriculture and animal health sectors more sustainable; Interactive Investor, the online investment platform based in Glasgow; and NuCana BioMed, the pharmaceutical company developing medicines that address significant unmet medical needs based in Edinburgh. Together, these businesses employ over 500 people.

Sustained investment provides the environment for growth

Tech companies across the UK raised a collective £11.3bn in funding last year - with Scottish tech companies raising £345m - 10x the investment raised in 2010 at £1.2bn. That’s more than every other country except China and the United States, and 250% more than the EU’s largest economy, Germany. Since 2015, total UK venture capital investment has been higher in every year than that in France, Germany and Israel. Overseas investors from the US and Asia have been increasingly attracted to the UK’s fastest-growing companies.

Whilst venture capital investment used to be concentrated at early stages, with 64% of funding going to companies at Seed, Series A and B rounds in 2016, for the past two years more than half of VC investment has been at later stages.This is helping to build the UK’s next generation of tech stars, contributing significantly to the maturity of the UK tech sector and the increasing number of potential unicorns across the country.

According to CBInsights, there are currently 697 unicorns in the world right now. Former unicorn's such as Google and Facebook are now household names, but what does it take to get there? 

SJD Accountancy took to find out if going to an Ivy League school is the path to be a successful founder of a unicorn company.

To answer this question, Crunchbase was analysed to discover the educational background of the highest-level employees. 

Stanford University a private research university in California is at the forefront and has produced 170 executives. The elite institution has become the cradle of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, among the list of founders; Porter Gale who founded Reddit, Jack Conte who co-founded Patreon and Edward Kim, who is the co-founder and Head of Engineering at Gusto. 

  Institution Location No. of Executives
1. Stanford University California, USA 170
2. University of California California, USA 114
3. Harvard University Massachusetts, USA 102
4. Harvard Business School Massachusetts, USA 72
5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Massachusetts, USA 63
6. Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania, USA 60
7. Dartmouth College  New Hampshire, USA 59
8. Stanford Graduate School of Business  California, USA 55
9. Cornell University New York, USA 47
10. Yale University Connecticut, USA 36
11. Princeton University New Jersey, USA 27
12. University of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania, USA 25
13. Tel Aviv University Israel  24
13. Brown University Rhode Island, USA 24
14. University of Southern California California, USA 20
15. Hebrew University of Jerusalem Israel 19
16 University of Oxford England, UK 18
16. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Illinois, USA 18
16. Duke University North Carolina, USA  18
17. University of Washington Washington, USA 17
17. California State University California, USA 17

Ivy League school education is not a requirement to become a successful unicorn. Stanford, which has been shown before to have produced the most founders outright, has further cemented their status as a unicorn staple. In a surprising second place is the University of California, Berkeley with 114 executives originally studying there. Producing the likes of Roseanne Wincek, Investor of Glossier and Peter Sonsini, Board member at Databricks.

Although Harvard finished in third place overall, it is the leader when it comes to Ivy League schools, with 102 unicorn executives overall. Closely followed by its Business School counterpart, the Massachusetts college is famous for the fact that it has produced Facebook founder, and former unicorn, Mark Zuckerberg, but it has also produced such luminaries as Harry Nelis, who is a partner at Celonis, Lexi Reese who is the COO at Gusto and Neeraj Agrawal, who is the General Partner at Sprinklr. 

14 UK unicorn executives went to the University of Oxford, including Hagan Bayley who is the Founder and Director of Oxford Nanopore Technologies, Jan Hammer who is the main investor and Partner at Robinhood and Collibra, and also Jason Austin who is the President and Co-Founder of Greensill Capital.

Which Country Has Produced the Most Unicorn Executives? 

The United Kingdom takes silver, the UK has produced almost 217 unicorn executives and is the only European country in the top five.

  Country  No. of Executives
1. United States 2757
2. United Kingdom 217
3. China 161
4. India 154
5. Israel 77
6. Brazil 65
7. Canada 50
8. Sweden 29
9. Germany 88
10. France 68
11. Australia 28
12. Japan 6
13. Switzerland 23
14. The Netherlands 20
15. South Korea 17
16. Portugal 13
17. Spain 12
17. Hong Kong 12
18. Argentina 11
19. Mexico 8
19. Austria 8
20. Denmark 6
20. Japan 6

The clear winner is the United States, with 2,757 unicorn executives, including the likes of Christian Lanng, CEO and Co-Founder of Tradeshift, Doug Mack who is the Board Director and CEO of Fanatics and Liza Landsman, General Partner of Squarespace. 279 US executives also come from Ivy League schools

China, which has recently had a boom in start-up culture, resulting in a number of unicorns springing up, comes in 3rd place with 161 executives, whilst Hong Kong is 19th place, with only 12 unicorn executives. The majority of China and Hong Kong’s executives also went to University in the United States.

Mexico and Austria come in joint 20th place, with 8 unicorn executives each. Joint last place is Japan and Denmark who closely follow with 6 executives each. 

Methodology & Sources: Analysing Crunchbase’s unicorn seed list as a starting point to determine the private companies that have a valuation of $1bn or more. SJD Accountancy took the top 200 unicorns as determined by the value on Crunchbase. From there they crawled this list of employees under their People tab, taking the education that is listed by Crunchbase. Where it was missing they supplemented where possible with LinkedIn profiles. For the purposes of this study, executive is defined as any of the following positions: CEO, Founder, Director, Board Member and any C-Level position.

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