Over the past 40 years, Sandy Finlayson has been at the heart of some of the most exciting chapters in the story of Scotland’s technology ecosystem: he introduced Mike Rutterford to Barry Sealey, which led to the creation of the Archangels business angel syndicate; he brought the Archangels together with inventor Douglas Anderson to finance the foundation of eye scanner maker Optos; and he paired up those who funded the expansion of energy consultancy McKinnon & Clarke.
Now, after stepping down last year as senior partner at law firm MBM Commercial, Finlayson is ready to take on a new challenge. Once the prizes have been presented at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh on 22 September, he will become the chairman of the Converge Challenge, the company creation competition and entrepreneur development scheme that invites university students, staff and recent graduates to come up with an idea for a business.
Finlayson, who takes over from Mervyn Jones, has signed up to his new role for the next three years. Since it was created in 2011, Converge Challenge has supported 150 projects and 90 early stage ideas, which have resulted in the formation of 68 companies.
Those businesses have gone on to raise in excess of £34m of funding between them and together they now employ more than 150 people. A record 212 entries were received across the three categories this year: ‘Converge Challenge’ for those with an established idea; ‘KickStart’ for early stage ideas; and ‘Social Enterprise’ for ideas that aim to have a positive impact on social and environmental issues.
“I think it’s a very exciting and important initiative,” Finlayson says. “I’ve had the good fortunate to have been involved in some of its events and I’ve been very impressed by the standard of the events that it’s held and the way that it’s grown. The fact that it’s growing year-on-year shows that it’s fulfilling a gap in the market for which there is a real need.
“I’m also impressed by the standard of many of the applications. I think that it’s great that there are so many international students taking part in it. That’s really what attracted me.”
Finlayson will chair the contest’s steering group, which includes representatives from Scotland’s eight research-intensive universities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews, Stirling and Strathclyde – along with the Scottish Funding Council.
The contest is open to students, graduates and staff from all 19 of Scotland’s universities and research institutions. Part of the attraction for Finlayson of taking up the role of chairman was working with Converge Challenge director Olga Kozlova, who came up with the idea for the competition. Kozlova, who is also enterprise creation manager at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, has been praised by Finlayson for her capable leadership and for assembling such a skilled team.
“I’ve been interested in this area for a long time,” he explains. “Back in 1995, Crawford Beveridge – who at the time was the chief executive at Scottish Enterprise – asked a really important question: why isn’t Scotland commercialising its science base?
“That led to the commercialisation inquiry and the creation of Connect, which has morphed into the Engage Invest Exploit (EIE) programme, an initiative of Informatic Ventures. So I became very interested in this whole issue of commercialising our science base – it was a real eye-opener for me to see the extent to which an active research base could improve the prospects of an economy, such as the major effect of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States or the ‘Cambridge miracle’ south of the Border.
“There is so much more that we could do here in Scotland to commercialise our intellectual assets and that’s what excites me.” He adds: “I think Converge Challenge fulfils a very important role in this particular part of the technology landscape. EIE has a very clear part to play and I think Converge Challenge fills an important role at an earlier stage in that process, which is helping people to firm-up on their ideas for new businesses, to help them validate their business plans and to get them ready for investment. “They can then go on to pitch for investment at EIE. The two together are highly-complementary to one another and I think they play a very important role in this part of Scottish business life together with other initiatives like Scottish Edge.”
Finlayson may have stood down from the partnership at MBM Commercial but he is still working with the firm in a business development role. He has also become involved with TalentSpark, a digital platform for start-up jobs, advice and support.
Much more than just a competition
Contestants taking part in the three categories of Converge Challenge – ‘Kickstart’, ‘Social Enterprise’ and the main ‘Converge Challenge’ – compete for a share of £150,000 in prize money and in-kind help, which consists of legal support, financial advice, mentoring, branding and marketing support, intellectual property (IP) help, product development aid, and networking. But the cash is only half the story.
Converge Challenge also offers a comprehensive training programme to the top 30 competitors in the main Converge Challenge and to the KickStart and Social Enterprise finalists. This includes a three-day residential training course, followed by a one-day workshop entitled “Practical skills in business development for start-ups” for the top ten entrants in the Converge Challenge. The finalists receive individual follow-up meetings and one-to-one coaching to help them attend a trade show or meetings with customers.
The training is delivered by Neuehansa, which also provides trainers for the highly-regarded and competitive Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) enterprise fellowships. Converge Challenge director Olga Kozlova also contributes to the development and delivery of the training, so applicants can take advantage of her experience and expertise. The aim of the training programme is to help entrants compile an ‘investor-ready’ business plan, incorporate a start-up or spin-out company, or close a seed funding round.
Each project starts from a different point and has different short-term goals and so the training can be tailored to suit each competitor. Sandy Finlayson, the incoming chairman of the contest, said: “Converge Challenge is a competition, but it’s much, much more than that – it’s a process that encourages and enables people to start interesting businesses with real potential.”
Ahead of the deadline on 4 August for submitting their business plans for the competition, the top 30 entrants took part in one-to-one business surgeries at law firm Morton Fraser’s offices in Edinburgh and a Royal Bank of Scotland office in Glasgow. Evelyn McDonald, chief executive of Scottish Edge, told competitors how they could apply for finance from her fund, while director of operations Gordon Stuart spoke about Informatics Ventures, the technology entrepreneur accelerator scheme.
Converge Challenge judge and early-stage company consultant Mary Jane Brouwers and Gill MacAulay, managing director Strathclyde University Incubator and director of investment syndicate Gabriel then offered advice before the competitors spoke confidentially to the advisors.