Highland Tech Looking for Partners

Scotland is trying to grow its information technology business, and it's turning to counterparts in Virginia for help

Scotland, a country better known for its highlands than high tech, may have more to offer local business leaders than a good glass of single-malt scotch.

Indeed, like the so-called Netplex, Scotland is home to a growing concentration of information technology firms. More than 300 high-tech firms are clustered in the corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh, which is making an international name for itself as "Silicon Glen."

Similarities between the two regions an ocean apart have not been lost on leaders in either community, and led to the recent formation of the U.S.-Scottish Software Partnership. The partnership, whose sponsors include the Washington Airports Task Force and Scottish Trade International, the global arm of Scotland's economic development agency, is designed for the mutual benefit of businesses linked by Dulles International Airport.

Karen McMurrich, vice president, North America, Scottish Trade International, said Silicon Glen's 40,000 employees produce approximately 30 percent of Europe's PCs, and 10 percent of the world's.

"But we also have a growing number of entrepreneurial software companies involved in the design and development of new products which may have partnering potential with Northern Virginia's software industry," McMurrich said.

A fortnight ago, the partnership put that premise to the test with its first international trade mission, which brought representatives of 25 Scottish high-techs to the area for a three-day visit to network with their counterparts in the Washington region and explore reciprocal business relationships.

Delegation member Robin Mair, director of Glasgow-based MatchMaker Services Ltd., which helps arrange joint ventures and partnerships between Scottish and American businesses, said many small and specialized technology companies in both communities need partners.

Scotland's high-tech industry was born in 1951 when IBM opened shop in Scotland, and many other American companies have drawn a highly educated workforce that produces a disproportionate share of the U.K.'s computer science graduates.

Scottish firms, Mair said, are especially strong in open systems, multimedia and systems integration. But while everyone in Scottish infotech knows about California's Silicon Valley and Route 128 in Massachusetts, Mair pointed out, not many know of the technology hub coalescing around metropolitan Washington.

"They opened our eyes," Mair said. "It's been a delight to see the wealth of opportunity that exists here."

Martin Ritchie, CEO of Spider Systems Ltd., an Edinburgh data communications equipment manufacturer, agrees. "We see this as an opportunity and a new market area," said Ritchie, whose firm already maintains offices in Massachusetts and California.

But, Mair emphasized, the Netplex visit was more an intelligence gathering than hunting trip. "We are not here to make any quick sales," he said. "We want to introduce Scottish companies to potential partners in the U.S."

The short visit may, however bear fruit, said Sid Jaffe, principal of Vantage Consulting Inc. of Annandale, which represents Scottish Trade International.

A pair of Netplex companies are close to signing agreements to distribute the products of two Silicon Glen firms, none of which Jaffe can name until the papers are signed. One develops software for the legal profession; the other manufactures imaging hardware to automate the handling of scanned documents. Additionally, he said, several American firms are in serious discussions with their Scottish counterparts about teaming in Europe.

"Things have moved forward more rapidly than we would have expected," Jaffe said.

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