Edinburgh clinches prize as Entrepreneurial city of the year

Edinburgh scooped the Entrepreneurial City of the  Year prize, at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards recently, but what makes it such an entrepreneurial centre?

Maybe it boils down to there being four universities, and 50,000 students, rather a lot for a city with a population of around half a million. Or maybe it is that the city is so compact.

Cllr Andrew Burns, leader of the City of Edinburgh Council suggests that it might have something to do with what he calls “fantastic compactness, with all the major institutions  within walking distance.”  He adds that no less than 10 per cent of that population is student population. “  He continues: “Edinburgh boasts . . the world’s most famous arts festival . . . it has got everything going for it.”

Jim Galloway, head of enterprise and innovation, city strategy and economy, expressed a similar idea. “Edinburgh was the original  seat of enlightenment in the 18th century, David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns walked the streets of Edinburgh, they bumped into each other, and into the common people as well. This is still part of what Edinburgh is today. We are now the seat of enlightenment point two. It is still a city you can walk across in a day, a city where people meet and chat.  That same connectivity is the key to our success as an innovative city”.

One thing is for sure, if you talk to the people in Edinburgh who are trying to drive its entrepreneurism you detect pride, a real sense that they love the city, and  want it to thrive.

Cllr Burns also spoke with obvious enthusiasm of the city’s ability to retain its graduate talent.  He calls this retention rate “remarkable.” It helps when the city is beautiful, which Edinburgh undeniably is. “After London, we have got the second highest level of graduates in the workforce” he said: “just under 50%.”

“We are the cultural city of the world,” said Mr Galloway,  slightly tongue in check. “We have the world famous arts festival and fringe, other cities have tried to  imitate that, and we are flattered by that. “

Maybe that’s it. As Cllr Burns said, the city is a “real magnet for high tech businesses, for bio tech, for finance, for the arts, partly driven by the student population.”

What is quite interesting, considering the small size and compactness of  the city, is that it is seeing the development of clusters –  a bio quarter, a focus on sport around Heriot-Watt University, and food innovation focused on  Queen Margaret University, and a science and technology park near Napier University. While Edinburgh University has a focus on nanotechnology – “around 17,000 research students  in the area working on it.”

Of course the art and fringe festivals are very important to the city, “I am convinced that this is a very strong element.”  Cllr Burns continued: “People come here as students, fall in love with the city, and stay here.” And the quality of life, exemplified by the festivals is a key part of that.

The city is also seeing rapid business expansion, with a 19 per cent  increase in start-ups in 2015, compared to the year before. “Some 6,000 businesses were created in the one year,” says Cllr Burns.

There are also accelerator initiatives such as Codebase, Creative Exchange and Entrepreneurial Spark.

Mr Galloway talks about random collisions. “That same connectivity,” he says “is the key to our success as an innovative city”. . . .He adds “We have got structured serendipity.” So what does that mean then? He said: “It is rife. We have got 60 different organisations helping  entrepreneurs in the city, and they talk to one another, share information, refer clients, and customers  on to one another.

“At the last count we had 17 incubators and co-working spaces, and they are working together as part of a programme called Interspace.”

One rather intriguing example of Edinburgh as a hub of entrepreneurial endeavour, is memorandum of understanding with Shenzen, a major city in the south of Southern China’s Guangdong Province, so that the Creative Exchange, a co-working space in Edinburgh is twinned with an incubator in China. Chinese business from Shenzen can use the Creative Exchange when they are in Edinburgh, while businesses from Edinburgh can use the Shenzen space – and that’s  free, both ways.

Mr Galloway adds “Edinburgh has a great tradition of being open to the world, we have great relationships with cities through the world, in Europe, North America and China.”

As for scooping the Great British Entrepreneur Awards city prize,  Cllr Gavin Barrie, Economy Convener, said: “I’m delighted that Edinburgh has won yet another top business award, this time being recognised as a key centre for entrepreneurship.  . . The strongest community of Angel Investors and venture capitalists per head of population in Europe, is also located in Edinburgh, while Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce spearheads Scotland’s most comprehensive mentor matching programme.”