Innovation Centres: Scotland takes the initiative …
Innovation Centres: Scotland takes the initiative
Scotland’s first eight Innovation Centres
Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC)
Innovation Centre for Sensors and Imaging Systems (CENSIS)
Digital Health Institute (DHI)
Oil & Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC)
Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC)
The Data Lab
Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC)
Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC)
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is investing up to £110 million in core funding for eight new Innovation Centres over the next five years. The idea is to set up centres of excellence that have a wider economic and social impact by building bridges between academic researchers and business – generating wealth and creating new jobs by developing new innovative solutions in response to demand from industry and government in Scotland and beyond...
How do you encourage innovation? There will never be a single solution, but collaboration between academic researchers and business is a good place to start, and Scotland already has a world-class research base and industry partners who know they will need to be more innovative to sharpen competitive edge. The prize is not just economic benefit and business success but also quality of life, improving public services, including health and social care, as well as government policies.
Collaboration and the wider benefits of innovation are what inspired the creation of eight new Innovation Centres in Scotland as part of an ambitious plan developed by SFC, in partnership with Scottish Enterprise (SE) and Highlands Islands Enterprise (HIE), over the last three years. In the past, SFC and other funding bodies have focused on much smaller-scale initiatives, such as the innovation voucher scheme managed by Interface.
“These smaller-scale projects have been highly successful and Interface is a wonderful example of that success,” says Professor Albert Rodger, a member of SFC’s Board and Chair of the SFC’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee, “but we want to scale up the ambition, and we also think the time is ripe for a more joined-up and more strategic national plan. The Innovation Centres have a key role to play, but they are not the only solution – they are part of the overall strategy.”
The Innovation Centres will facilitate collaboration across different sectors and amongst different government organisations, complementing rather than replacing or duplicating what they are doing. For example, the Innovation Centres already work very closely with SE and HIE, and Interface will continue to connect academic researchers with business, providing innovation vouchers (worth £5,000–£20,000) and liaising with the Innovation Centres, which in turn will direct business traffic to Interface, if that's the right thing to do. “The Innovation Centres will be compatible with the existing infrastructure,” Rodger explains.
Another major role will be developing new university courses and other educational materials, with £2 million set aside each year to fund courses in novel areas – many subjects, such as industrial biotechnology, stratified medicine, digital health and big data simply didn't exist just a few years ago, so SFC wants to ensure it empowers the next generation of highly-skilled staff, innovators and entrepreneurs in these areas.
The strategy develops
Right from the start, SFC was conscious that it didn't have all the answers and that it would be a mistake to decide all the details before getting industry and university feedback. The first call for proposals went out in April 2012, with SFC in partnership with SE and HIE. The idea was to make “more strategic use of knowledge exchange (KE) support, investing in larger-scale initiatives that have the capacity to stimulate sustainable structural changes in linkages between academic and industry, rather than funding small-scale KE projects,” and the first step was to open up a dialogue with interested parties in industry and institutes of higher education (HEIs).
The objectives were clear, “to translate both innovation and knowledge from academia into businesses to drive international competitiveness and hence economic growth;” but even though the funding was available in principle, the details of how to achieve this were not carved in stone.
SFC was offering “an opportunity for HEIs to define and strengthen their role as partners with industry in delivering business demand,” creating an environment for innovation to flourish and supporting the development of a new generation of researchers and entrepreneurs; but it was up to industry to state its case and individual sectors to show their commitment before any Innovation Centre would open its doors. To “simplify the innovation landscape” would require a lot of careful assessment, as well as creative discussion.
In weighing up the first applications for funding, SFC was looking for strong industry buy-in from the start, as well as strong market demand – rather than encouraging blue-sky research. The business partners had to be prepared to contribute cash resources “relative to scale,” to demonstrate commitment and ensure the Innovation Centres would be fit to deliver. As a measure of future success, the Innovation Centres would also have to demonstrate “significant impact” for the HEIs and business partners, and attract funding from additional sources in the UK and Europe. SFC was also aware that the Innovation Centre for any one sector might have to be tailored to its individual requirements – in other words, one size does not fit all.
In the process of establishing the first eight Innovation Centres, SFC itself has had to undergo a culture change as much as its industry and university partners. “We realised we had to take the lead in bringing them together,” says Rodger. “We've also learned a lot during the process, not just about the different sectors, but the points of common interest as well – we're creating a joined-up community and the crossovers between them are becoming more apparent as the programme develops.”
The story so far
The call for proposals has been in two stages. The first wave of applicants (30in total) led to the creation of the first three Innovation Centres: CENSIS, DHI and SMS-IC. According to Rodger, these three sectors were ready for business because they were already mature in terms of industry involvement in Scotland and were also used to working in collaboration with researchers, as well as having strong demand for innovation.
“We didn’t want to over-engineer the concept,” says Rodger. “We wanted industry and academia to articulate their own response. Our job was to bring different people together. But first, industry needed to believe in the concept, and we also needed to bring academia with us.”
The second wave of applicants was able to learn from the first wave, with industry leading the bids. “The industry focus is vital,” says Rodger, “and we also wanted the Innovation Centres to be led by CEOs from industry rather than the academic sector.” The result was the creation of the Aquaculture, Construction, Industrial Biotechnology, Oil and Gas and Data Science Innovation Centres, all expected to be fully operational in early 2015.
Future plans may go in several directions, but building on the experience so far, Rodger believes that the shape of any future Innovation Centre will depend on demand from the industry partners in these sectors. The Innovation Centre model may not be appropriate to every single sector, and Interface or other initiatives, such as knowledge transfer partnerships (KTP), may continue to be a more effective solution. Some industries are much more fragmented than others, with many very different types of companies and applications involved, and they may not have the same kind of industry leadership or academic community driving them forward, even though they are major contributors to the Scottish economy. For example, many companies working in fields such as visualisation or graphic design could be part of the ecosystem, working with several existing Innovation Centres rather than needing to be a Centre on their own.
Now that the first eight Innovation Centres are up and running, SFC is able to review progress so far. The governance and modus operandi of the Innovation Centres are now much more clearly established and future Innovation Centres will be able to draw on existing good practices for inspiration, saving time and money in the process. Funds have been set aside for education, infrastructure and capital equipment, in addition to the money for each individual Innovation Centre. “We don't want to see any failures,” says Rodger, “but in the unlikely event of that happening, we will have learned much.”
The priority is economic impact, says Rodger, in terms of new jobs, companies and skills. “We also have clear international ambitions in terms of inward investment and exports – for example, the IBioIC is already part of a huge global industry. We’ve created the first eight Innovation Centres, and the programme is gaining momentum – and that means universities becoming even more attuned to the idea of more rapid exploitation of research and creating a collaborative innovation culture, with industry leading the way.”
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is responsible for funding teaching and learning provision, research and other activities in Scotland's 25 colleges and 19 universities and higher education institutions, with a budget of approximately £1.5 billion a year.
Innovation Centres: The vision
The Scottish Funding Council’s vision for the Innovation Centres is to use the “research excellence” of the Scottish universities as a platform for collaborations across the whole of Scotland.
The Innovation Centres “will create sustainable and internationally ambitious open communities of university staff, research institutes, business and others to deliver economic growth and wider benefits for Scotland.”