Staff Services Student Enterprise

Dr George Baxter, No Spectators Allowed

As you’d expect, Dr George Baxter, CEO of Edinburgh Innovations (EI), the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service, is all about the numbers.

The numbers that he’s most delighted with today are those from the University’s Economic and Social Impact Report, produced by London Economics. These numbers are huge - £7.5bn in total economic impact from 2021-22, £3.2b generated from research and knowledge exchange, £350m from knowledge exchange; £162m from startups and spinouts.

For George, these numbers mean a lot; “The University has an enormously positive impact on Edinburgh, the rest of Scotland and the UK. I think often people don’t quite realise the extent to which we drive economic impact. In addition, we are a serious contributor to the health and wealth of the nation, as well as the direct benefit we have educationally and entrepreneurially.

This means that practically we have helped create tens of thousands of good jobs, with new ideas and products coming onto the market all the time. Those lives are transformed through Scotland’s extremely successful higher education sector and Scotland is healthier and wealthier.”

And EI has increasingly been a part of that positive impact.

Dr Baxter has been CEO at EI for almost 7 years now. During that time EI has helped the University grow its industrial and translational research income from £10m to £80m this year, and EI has grown from 50 people to over 150.

There are a lot of great numbers, but George is very clear about the purpose of using so many figures, so often.

The money is an illustration of our success, but the real benefit is that it helps do more research; these numbers have created many new research partnerships which help improve people’s lives.

Life before Edinburgh Innovations

George was brought up in Balloch and was the first in his family to go to University after he convinced his Headmaster to tell his mother that he had to finish school.

George studied Chemistry at Glasgow University and continued to do a PhD in organic chemistry. Why? Simply, he really enjoyed it.

And then, his department organised a week-long industry placement course looking at commercial roles and he loved it. In his words he “didn’t know jobs like that existed and I thought, this is the right fit for me.” He was determined, when he finished his PhD, to go and work in industry.

It’s worth noting that, for a scientist, George’s love of the arts is profound. He sings in the University Chorus (favourite music, Peter Gabriel and Mahler’s 2nd Symphony) he paints, has just published a book of poetry and also writes fiction. His favourite poets are the typically rebellious Liverpool three – Brian Patton, Adrian Henri and Roger McGough.

George also likes playing sport – a football Blue and marathon runner at university, he’s now an avid pickleball player and he loves long distance hiking in the Scottish mountains. For all of these interests, there is a theme; George doesn’t spectate.

Taking the Challenge

George took on the role of CEO at EI because of the challenge it provided. 7 years ago, it was clear that the University’s research excellence was not matched by an equivalent level of commercialisation.

George was confident he could turn it around,

Because of the support of the senior management at the University. They were confident and supportive so I knew it would happen.”

There were four phases -

  • Stage One - Stabilization, stop the fall. Make sure everything is working, professionally.
  • Stage Two – Grow, look for opportunities to grow because the university had such a high level of research that wasn’t being commercialised, so there must be existing opportunities. There was some restructuring along the way as well, to support efficiency.
  • Stage Three – Scale and Internationalisation. We knew we wouldn’t meet our ambitions by doing another three hundred £100,000 projects, we had to start looking at larger, longer term and international projects. So, three years ago we undertook a strategy review and the Strategic Partnerships team was created.

"Each time we have moved thoughtfully and carefully but built on our existing success, we’ve met our targets and now Edinburgh Innovations is in the right place. So, we can move to stage Four.”

And about those KPIs?

“Well, we’ve set targets and we’ve met them.” Is a typically understated comment from George.

What this means is that EI has hit its 5 KPIs for 6 years in a row;

  • Industry and translational awards have increased from £10m to £80m, almost a quarter of all research income
  • Consultancy has increased from £4m to £13m
  • Investment in associated companies has increased from £10m to £107m
  • And student startups have increased from 30 to over 110 this year.

The reality is that it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Six years ago the university’s College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine (CMVM) had its own commercialisation team. Focusing on a long term strategy, George and EI set about quietly working on successful projects elsewhere in the University. Two years later, CMVM agreed to work with EI and this year Dr Susan Bodie’s team has worked with the College to secure almost £40m of industrial and translational awards.

EI now works across 90% of the University, to George’s obvious satisfaction.

Motivating a team to achieve this kind of growth is hard – particularly when a pandemic hits mid-way through stage Three of the plan. Does George have a particular leadership philosophy that has helped?

Leadership is partly about setting a practical vision - everyone wants to know where they are trying to get to and how.

"An old boss of mine said you have to work out where you're going to get to before you decide how you get there. Because if you're going to Aberdeen or New York, you take different modes of transport, right?

"So I try to make sure that everyone in the team understands the numbers and the targets. They then need to know how their role fits into that plan – and crucially they must stop doing anything else.

"Then recruit the right people for the right jobs and develop and train them - it’s great seeing how people develop.”

Culture is also increasingly important, and an early experience in industry when his entire department was cut without any warning has informed much of his approach. What does he value?

Intelligence, honesty, and teamwork. Sticking up for your colleagues is sometimes difficult but incredibly important.”

So, it’s no surprise that top of his highlights from his time so far at EI has been delivering the Advanced Care Research Centre.

"I was there from the very beginning, from when we really had nothing!

"In a meeting with about 30 of us, colleagues from all across the University, the Senior Vice Principal at the time said, “We’re going to do something with Legal and General and if anyone would like to lead it, put your hand up.

"And I stuck my hand up along with several other colleagues – and we had to sit down with a totally blank sheet of paper.

"But with willing from both sides, more people came on board too, we developed a really brilliant set of proposals that went on to secure £20 million for the creation of the Advanced Care Research Centre; the single biggest project of this type that the university has ever had.”

So now George is moving on to Stage Four;

  • Stage Four – Support University ambitions. EI is now well placed to help the University increase and improve its performance on innovation, and that means we need many more academics engaged.

And that is what George hopes will be the main outcome of the new Research and Enterprise Strategy that he has been working on with Christina Boswell, Vice Principal for Research and Enterprise and others across the University. The new strategy aims to increase the number of academics commercialising their research, improving impact and set up greater support from the Colleges and Schools along the way.

Beyond the University

Looking beyond the University, what does George think about the Scottish Government’s new National Innovation Strategy?

Now is the time to promote a radical innovation strategy. Scotland is now in a good position to do something really radical with regards to innovation that could then have a massive impact on people’s lives.

"The model is right – we should aim to be in amongst the Scandinavian countries and with globally top ranked Universities. we are in a good position.

"We have a real opportunity to build on our natural assets – our environmental and human capital and build an exciting, highly trained and productive economy that is actively addressing the big problems our world faces. How great would that be?”

It’s clear George is still energised and enthusiastic about EI’s future. What is it that gives him that motivation? The answer to this question was unwavering. “The people I work with. I’m genuinely inspired by the people at EI and the university.

Not only do I feel at home with my colleagues, they are also quite excellent. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning and that’s why I love working here. I genuinely look at some of the people I work with and I think oh, that's incredible. I think only this team, at this University could do that. That’s what I’m most proud of, and what I talk about to my family. The doing is the thing.”