Our new National Innovation Strategy, recently published and debated just yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, restates the Government’s ambition for Scotland to rank as a northern European innovation nation rivalling Denmark and Sweden. It’s a helpful reminder of the goal, but also that we have some distance to travel, writes Dr George Baxter, CEO of Edinburgh Innovations...
As the document states, there is much to be deeply proud of, and much to build on – not least our world-class universities and their world-class research. Acknowledgement of innovation as the heart of our economy recognises the potential of harnessing our natural and intellectual assets, and the massive opportunities that would create for our businesses and communities.
At Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service, we are experts at getting our research out of the university and into practical application – to treat patients, tackle climate change, create ethical AI systems – to help meet global challenges.
One excellent example is Ishani Malhotra (pictured above), CEO of startup Carcinotech and a University of Edinburgh graduate. Whilst completing her masters in regenerative medicine, Ishani and her classmates had to create a commercialisation opportunity from their research and pitch it to supervisors and industry advisors. The idea of 3D printing tumours to aid diagnosis and treatment was created and developed.
Carcinotech is now resident at Roslin Innovation Centre, but other startups and spinouts struggle to find lab space or enough trained staff. It’s a lesson from Boston‘s Kendall Square, California’s innovation hubs or the UK’s Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London that co-locating labs, companies and academia enables innovation.
Edinburgh’s Bioquarter is an ambitious start, and investing in the infrastructure of these ecosystems, and a more skilled workforce, would help us keep home-grown companies in Scotland.
This is another reason why the cluster approach set out in the Strategy, focusing on priority sectors based on current areas of success, is absolutely the right way forward. These priority sectors - energy to address the climate emergency, health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and data and digital technologies - largely align with the research and innovation strengths of Scotland’s higher education sector, essential to enable the ‘triple helix’ necessary for innovation – government, industry and academia, working together.
Funding, however, remains tricky. One obvious area of improvement would Scotland’s University Innovation Fund, which, under current organisation, means that Edinburgh receives just a third of the funding of an equivalent English university.
The Strategy suggests a new Scottish Innovation Fund with a tempting £100m in the pot, but it’s unclear how this co-investment model that universities would pay into will work, or how it will be allocated – cash-strapped universities will need the detail.
And the introduction of a Research Commercialisation Framework could be duplication of what some institutions are already doing well. The Scottish Government doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel - we just need to direct funding towards success, incentivise collaboration and share best practice.
Innovation is difficult, unpredictable, and often likely to fail. The Scottish Government can make valuable contributions towards an innovation ecosystem that truly helps our innovators navigate that challenging journey by focusing on infrastructure, investment and connection.
We need many more Ishani Malhotras.
Ishani Malhotra picture credit: Stewart Attwood