Skyscanner, the brainchild of Gareth Williams, was founded in 2003 when Williams found it difficult to find the flights he needed whilst travelling in Europe. Just over a decade later, and the flight comparison site is now reportedly valued at an incredible $1 billion.
Skyscanner is one of the most successful tech companies to launch in Edinburgh in recent years and now many tech start ups are looking to emulate its achievements. The capital has been inundated with young start-ups attracted by the University of Edinburgh's talent and world-class research as well as the city's investment opportunities and innovative initiatives that are helping to get ideas off the ground.
One such initiative that has proved very effective is CodeBase (formerly TechCube), an incubator programme, which provides affordable office space, community support and networking opportunities for the city's budding tech entrepreneurs. Another is Informatics Ventures, which is based at the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. It works in partnership with Scottish businesses and institutions to create a network of support for individuals and their early-stage companies. It runs masterclasses, workshops and entrepreneurial education programmes in the UK and US to give those individuals the business know-how to transform their technology into a solid business venture.
"The capital has been inundated with young start-ups attracted to the University of Edinburgh's talent and world-class research as well as the city's investment opportunities and innovative initiatives."
"The idea is to get a bunch of companies together who are at the same stage of development because they learn from each other," explains Dr. Colin Adams, Director of Commercialisation at Informatics Ventures. "The Edinburgh eco-system is now probably the third-biggest in the UK and it's growing. There are now 17 incubators in Edinburgh whereas in 2006, when we kicked this programme off, there was only one at the University of Edinburgh. The bulk of the start-ups come from the university or they are attracted here because of the talent or because of the ideas which come out of the university. Since 2000, the University of Edinburgh has generated more start-ups and spin-outs than any other UK university. The School of Informatics is the biggest single research establishment in Europe in computer science and informatics, and it is the best in the UK. We are also top four in the world alongside the likes of Stanford."
Many start-ups in Edinburgh are not only receiving support and guidance but also essential grants and funding from the likes of Scottish Enterprise. Edinburgh was recently named Top Mid-Sized city in Europe in the Foreign Direct Investment (fDi) magazine's European Cities and Regions of the Future 2014/15 awards. The fDi ranks European cities and regions according to their prospects in terms of inward investment, economic development and business expansion. The capital was also rewarded for its strategy in attracting foreign direct investment.
The city, which also houses the headquarters of gaming icon Rockstar North and offices for global giant Microsoft, is a hotbed for tech innovation right now and given all the opportunities on offer, it's no surprise that so many start-ups are choosing to make the capital their home.
Let's take a closer look at some of the most exciting tech start-ups, which are thriving in Edinburgh.
Quorate Technology is a spin-out from the Centre for Speech Technology Research at the University of Edinburgh. A team of post-doctoral researchers spent around eight years developing a speech recognition system that can convert conversational-style speech into text.
"Our software automatically generates a transcript of a conversation – such as a meeting, conference call or presentation – and aligns this transcript to the recording," explains co-founder, Nick Rankin. "The system now makes it as easy to search audio and video recordings, as it is to search say web pages and other text documents. However, not only can you quickly locate the words you are looking for in the transcript, you can also jump to the relevant section of audio in order to very easily find out not only what was been said but, perhaps more importantly, how it was said."
Having just exited his previous Scottish tech start-up to a large US corporate, Nick was volunteering at the University of Edinburgh when he came across the system. Nick saw its potential and encouraged the lead researcher (and now co-founder), Dr. Mike Lincoln, to start a business. Mike agreed, but only if Nick would come on board too. That was in 2012, and since then, the business has flourished with support from its first customer Airbus and also grant funding from Scottish Enterprise. "Our initial target markets are: media (making audio and video archives easy to browse and search); policing (interviews, control rooms and body worn video cameras); and defence (a range of surveillance and military communications)," says Nick.
You know you've made it when your technology is featured in one of Kanye West's music videos. That's what happened to Speech Graphics, a small award-winning tech company that makes audio-driven facial animation.
"We take recorded speech or text and turn it into facial animation," explains CEO and co-founder, Dr. Gregor Hofer. "Clients send us their facial models and their audio and we use our technology to animate it for them. A lot of the time, clients come to us and don't have a facial model so we also produce that for them. We work mostly in the entertainment industry so most of our clients are computer game companies. Our biggest customer is Warner Brothers. But we do other stuff as well. We did all the facial animation for a music video for Kanye West. That was crazy."
The company was started in 2010 by Greg and co-founder, Michael Berger, who developed the technology at the University of Edinburgh. "The university helped us a lot and the informatics department is really famous," says Greg. "There are a lot of very good people over there and the resources are great. We use contractors from there all the time."
With the company now rapidly expanding into other markets including mobile, it won't be the last you're hearing of Greg and Michael.
A photo-journalling site that lets its users upload only one photo a day, Blipfoto initially began as a hobby. "I jointly ran a design agency in Edinburgh," explains Joe Tree, CEO and co-founder. "Blip started as a personal project of mine and it then became a company-wide project. It was really a way of allowing ourdesigners to flex their creative muscles when they weren't doing client work."
It stopped being a hobby in 2009 when Joe, much to his surprise, found himself on stage picking up a BAFTA award. Blipfoto now has users of all ages and from all walks of life in more than 185 countries. "It's meant to be all-encompassing, where people can discover lives that they may not otherwise find," says Joe. "We've found a very rich and vibrant community has been built up."
Likewise, Joe believes a vibrant start-up scene in Edinburgh has recently developed. "It's great to be a part of," he says. "The University of Edinburgh is one of the top universities in the world and it churns out a lot of good people. But I think what has really nurtured this scene are a few key individuals who have really taken it upon themselves to help the start-up scene develop. Gareth Williams of Skyscanner is a prime example."
It's a very exciting time for TigerFace Games. The small company of four, which was established in 2011, has recently been recognised for a prestigious award in the US. "We've been nominated for best learning game at a big kids' entertainment trade show," says Kate Ho, Managing Director, who completed a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. "We're just a tiny Scottish company up against two PBS kids' games, which is the equivalent of CBBC here."
It's just one of a recent spate of award nominations for the US-facing company, which builds learning games on tablet devices for children. The games are based around the idea of collaboration and aim to get kids playing and learning together. It solves the age-old problem that parents have: how to help their kids learn their spelling and timestables without it seeming like a chore.
"As a company, we started by making software for big touch screens," explains Kate. "When the iPad came out three years ago, we took the idea to large established education companies and said that we could make board-game like educational apps on the iPad, but everyone said the iPad was too small. We decided to go for it and do it ourselves."
Given all the recognition they're now receiving, it's a gamble that's well and truly paid off.
Founded in 2005, CereProc is a speech synthesis company, which creates natural-sounding text-to-speech voices. CereProc works with academic institutions, government bodies, organisations and companies. Their core product is CereVoice and it is available in different languages and accents.
"It has lots of different purposes," says Dr Matthew Aylett, one of CereProc's founders. "We're interested in producing voices that have got character – a voice with emotion, not a neutral sounding voice that is usually associated with voice synthesis."
One area Matthew works in is voice replacement. When film critic, Roger Ebert, lost his voice following surgery for cancer, the speech experts at CereProc created a synthetic voice for him from DVD commentaries and tape recordings of his voice. They'll soon be releasing a service where people can clone their own voices at home using their PCs.
CereProc has also recently launched a personalised radio station app called MyMyRadio. "It acts like a personal radio station and it gives you updates of your Facebook and Twitter feeds and so on," says Matthew. "We are very enthusiastic about eyes-free interfaces as you can take technology away from continuously clicking and make it more pervasive."