Martin Vander Weyer

2019 finalists lunch - Scotland & Northern Ireland

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Another fine lunch and a particularly fine Edinburgh venue for our encounter with finalists for the Scotland & Northern Ireland region of The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor Awards 2019. We’re in the Register Club, inside the Edinburgh Grand Hotel on St Andrew’s Square – a building which happens to have been the headquarters of Royal Bank of Scotland before its chief executive Fred Goodwin commissioned an extravagant new campus on the city outskirts. Fred’s name will forever be associated with RBS’s 2008 collapse, and guess what: we’re lunching in a handsome room that actually used to be his office. So here we are discussing new frontiers of entrepreneurship in a setting where the seeds of the financial sector’s near-destruction were once sewn. Proof, perhaps, that capitalism constantly finds interesting ways to renew itself…

With me today are regional guest judge Irene McAleese, co-founder of See.Sense, the Northern Ireland-based smart-bike-light venture that was our regional winner last year; and Gordon Scott, regional director of our sponsor, the private bank Julius Baer. Joining us by phone for our subsequent podcast is another regional guest judge, veteran north-of-the-border venture capitalist Ian Ritchie.

All four of our finalists today are involved in the gathering and analysis of data – but in very different spheres. First to present was DeltaDNA, represented by its chairman Tim Christian, which claims to be transforming the mobile phone-based games industry by collating data from some 200 million users making 50,000 playing choices (or ‘events’) per second, or three billion events per day. The objective is to recognise patterns of play and ‘manage the player experience’ towards playing and spending more: only 2 per cent are regular spenders. It does not encourage gambling, however, and exercises social responsibility in spotting troubled or addictive players.

Next was TVSquared – one of Edinburgh’s best-known tech start-ups – represented by chief executive Calum Smeaton, whose efforts are divided between the UK, US and Japanese television advertising markets. TVSquared provides sophisticated analysis of online activity in response to TV ads, enabling advertisers to know, far more precisely than by previous methods, ‘what works and what doesn’t’ and to target ad spend accordingly. Though television may be a medium in long-term decline, it still represents a $200 billion advertising market.

Third (alphabetically, that is) was WFS Technologies, based at Livingston, which has perfected devices with long battery life to carry wifi signals underwater or underground at distances that enable monitoring of oil-rig installations, offshore wind turbines and other infrastructure assets. Founder Brendan Hyland explained how WFS is ‘collapsing the unit price of underwater data’, with potential applications for aquaculture, climate-related sea-level changes and the defence industry, as well as for energy companies.

Finally we heard from Faizaan Ghauri, a native of Los Angeles whose company WRLD 3D is based in Dundee and has its roots in the flourishing video games industry there. WRLD is in the business of using geo-spatial data to create ‘digital twins’: virtual reality models of office buildings, retail malls, airports and entire cities – or even of Planet Earth itself – to make them ‘smarter’ in terms of space utilisation and other resource uses.

Four vivid presentations of high-growth businesses that are all riding the Big Data wave and making a difference in their marketplace. Is it a big enough difference to be a Disruptor winner? We’ll find out after our judges convene later in September. I’ve now met or talked to all 28 of this year’s finalists up and down the country and it’s been a fascinating tour of the entrepreneurial zeitgeist.