Research and innovation at the heart of growth

The University of Edinburgh plays a central role in shaping the driving forces of the Scottish economy and fostering a decisive spirit of entrepreneurialism

by Pete Hotten

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There is no mistaking that job creation, growth and innovation are critical factors to ensuring a thriving economy, a philosophy that most people would agree on. However, the important role that universities play in shaping these key economic driving forces should not be overlooked.
Pete Hotten P2
Peter Hotten

As one of the world’s leading academic institutes, the University of Edinburgh makes a significant contribution to these critical economic drivers which are core to the university’s values. It continues to make a strong intellectual and economic contribution to Scotland – and indeed the UK.

At the heart of the university’s substantial contribution to the economy are the vibrant innovation and industry engagement activities driven by the university’s innovation engine, Edinburgh Research & Innovation (ERI). ERI is central to ensuring that the university’s world leading expertise, state of the art facilities and research outputs are focused to create lasting impact for both industry and the economy. There is a rich variety of innovation activities led and supported by ERI, such as long-term research and consultancy partnerships, intellectual property licensing as well as company spin outs and start-ups.

Additionally the University of Edinburgh is amongst the most entrepreneurial in the UK and 2015 was a record breaking year with the total number of spin-outs and start-ups reaching 417. The influence of this activity is reflected in the fact that the Edinburgh area is now emerging as the largest technology hub outside London. The new companies formed by the University of Edinburgh are estimated to have created over 3,500 jobs, contributing more than £200 million to the global economy. In the past 18 months alone, the University of Edinburgh’s spin-out companies have secured 13 SMART Awards, bringing in almost £900,000 to fund their ventures, resulting in the creation of new jobs and providing security for others. This is a significant contribution during a period of economic recovery and adds further to the renowned enterprise scheme created here.

In supporting industrial innovation, ERI has an estimated 2,500 industry partnerships worldwide and is driving the latest cutting-edge thinking to the boardrooms of companies today. ERI is also at the forefront of exciting initiatives which facilitate new opportunities between industry and academia. One such example is AIMday (Academic Industry Meeting day) which brings industry challenges and opportunities from company boardrooms to the doors of the university’s academics, thereby broadening the research impact and extent of knowledge exchange across many sectors.

Innovation is pivotal to long-term competitiveness and sustainable economic growth, and the University of Edinburgh has a worldwide reputation for its excellence in research and is a leader in innovative thinking.

Further embedding industry engagement across the university and demonstrating the value that knowledge exchange can bring to companies is a task that we have brought to the forefront here at Edinburgh Research & Innovation. Long-term partnerships where fresh thinking and new perspectives are developed, tested and implemented around the world are how that impact is delivered – not only to companies and organisations but society as a whole.

Dr Pete Hotten is interim Chief Executive Officer at ER

How government is helping our universities to punch above their weight

Innovation is one of the four central pillars of Scotland’s Economic Strategy. Alongside investment, inclusive growth and internationalisation, innovation is a pathway to creating a strong, vibrant and diverse economy. We are increasing investment in Interface, Scotland’s central hub connecting businesses to Scotland’s Higher Education and Research Institutions. Interface connects business and academia, enabling them to benefit from academic insight to drive forward their profitability and commercial success. Interface delivers the Scottish Funding Council’s Innovation Vouchers programme which allows a huge range of companies – from food and drink producers to engineering firms – to unlock the wealth of knowledge and expertise residing within our academic base.

Almost 1,000 standard Innovation Vouchers have been approved since the Scottish Funding Council launched the scheme in 2009, amounting to just over £4.5 million. This has been crucially important in helping SMEs to work with universities to identify and develop products and processes for new and emerging markets.

An interesting example of this is the sport of mountain biking, which is experiencing a huge worldwide boom in popularity. Last year I visited the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland at Glentress, near Peebles, a partnership between Scottish Cycling, Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland, Edinburgh Napier University, Borders College, Scottish Enterprise and the Forestry Commission.

A recent survey of 28 companies helped by the centre – with products ranging from cycling clothing to security devices – forecast a combined increase in turnover of £13.5 million over the next three years. It is estimated that this growth will create 69 new jobs and see a £7.4 million increase in international sales over the same period.

The Scottish Government continues to support high-impact, world-class research and the commercialisation of research in Scotland’s universities. For example, through the Scottish Funding Council, we are providing funding of up to £124 million over six years to eight Innovation Centres.

These bring together university staff, research institutes, businesses and others to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship across Scotland’s key sectors, harnessing big data, sensor technology and other major digital developments.

For example, the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre established in 2014 unites 2,300 oil and gas operators and service companies with 12 Scottish universities working in partnership on oil and gas specific technologies. OGIC is already supporting the industry to increase production and reduce costs by developing new technical solutions.

With five universities in the UK top 20 for spin-outs, Scotland continues to punch above its weight with 20 per cent of all spin-outs in the UK, ahead of London and the south east of England. Examples include Edinburgh’s light-based communications technology company, purelifi; Strathclyde’s Biogelx and 2015 MacRobert Award winner Artemis Intelligent Power. This demonstrates the way the Scottish Government, through a range of mechanisms, is supporting businesses, universities and others to create an economy where growth is based on innovation. It is an approach we will continue to champion.

Fergus Ewing is Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism