Why Universities must be at the heart of the Innovation and Technology Ecosystem – Jarmo Eskelinen

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Few Scottish Government publications have had as much impact as Mark Logan’s review of the Scottish Technology Ecosystem. This is perhaps because it is a well written, accurate, and Mr Logan himself carries the authority of success. However, it is also because it presents a tantalising glimpse into one vision for the future of the Scottish economy – a bright future.

A technology ecosystem is the combination of actions and operations that support and nurture technology businesses, from the early start-up phase through to fully scaled maturity. The Logan Review acknowledges that the Scottish tech ecosystem has been growing for years. Growth has been partly organic and partly manufactured, adapting to government policy and priority as much as market demand.

This organic approach has created an ecosystem that already works – it has produced Skyscanner, as well as buzzing start-up communities in several key domains, such as FinTech. Nevertheless, there are obvious constraints. The process of securing large-scale innovation investment can take up to 3 years and is highly complex and challenging. Our Tech ecosystem does not support itself but requires public subsidies – in Logan’s words, it is “below the tipping point”.

Consequently, Scotland is not universally considered a global destination for innovation. Working together and with the implementation of a whole system approach, we can push our tech ecosystem, over the tipping point, widen the start-up funnel and facilitate hundreds of tech start-ups.

Our universities are an exceptional asset to the Scottish Tech Ecosystem since we have a superb higher education cluster. Scottish Universities are a source of world-class research, intellectual property, and talent. Universities can increase their support to entrepreneurialism, nurturing future founders.

Perhaps the best way of doing that would be for universities to join forces and develop a strategic, nation-wide model to address this challenge, in collaboration between the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council, and the private sector.

The University of Edinburgh has been one of the main contributors to the evolution of the thriving start-up scene of the capital city. Regional and national success are connected – the future of the Edinburgh tech start-up scene depends on the availability of talent from all corners of the nation, and from abroad.

Therefore, as one of the leading contributors to the Scottish Tech Ecosystem, we have been building connections and launching entrepreneurship programmes and platforms, available across Scotland and beyond, as well as attracting significant investment into the Scottish tech innovation sector.

As such, the University coordinates the Data-Driven Innovation initiative (DDI) of the Edinburgh & South East Scotland City Region Deal. As the largest innovation grant ever won by a University in the UK, DDI can be an exceptional resource to our tech ecosystem.

The five DDI Innovation Hubs (Bayes Centre, Edinburgh Futures Institute, Usher Institute, Roslin Institute, and National Robotarium with Heriot-Watt University) are externally facing innovation centres.

They are connected to the massive-scale data storage and processing capacity of the world-class Edinburgh International Data Facility. Together with an external network of partners, they form an excellent platform for incubating and scaling high-growth tech ventures and connecting them to a robust talent pipeline.

Early results of the DDI Programme are impressive. After the first two years, over 1100 jobs have been created through construction and innovation activities. The industry has invested £61.7m to DDI projects (+100% over target), and 42 new data-driven companies have been launched (+85% over mark).

The University of Edinburgh has already taken action to implement the recommendations of the Scottish Tech Ecosystem review. Building on the ongoing collaboration with the world-class innovation drivers of Edinburgh (incubators, accelerators, and venture funders), the University is deepening the partnership with Codebase to deliver the Tech Scaler in Edinburgh.

The University of Edinburgh is also well placed to support the International Tech Market Square through existing activities, such as the Engage Invest Exploit (EIE) programme, when those are scaled up and funded on the national level.

With support from Scottish Enterprise, the University of Edinburgh has made significant investments in supporting such activities for the benefit of the regional ecosystem. Scaling this up to a national scale, will require further, continued investment from the public and private sectors, but is essential to attracting the levels of inward start-up funding needed to make a step-change.

Lastly, technologies evolve exponentially, and the tech ecosystem of tomorrow will be different from the one of today.  We must future-proof our Tech Ecosystem. As educational institutions, universities can be in a vital role in this, ensuring our tech community is diverse and inclusive, combining entrepreneurship with science.

Solving global challenges, such as climate change, will need new technologies and radical innovations – so-called “deep-tech start-ups”. Developing fundamental science to be start-up ready may take up to a decade. We need new, multi-stakeholder funding models and collaboration between the entrepreneurs, universities, the Government, and corporations are to unlock the innovation potential of key enabling technologies.

Scottish Universities are already the intersections of this entrepreneurial, innovative and technologically driven activity. They can play an essential role at the heart of a tech ecosystem fit for the future.

Jarmo Eskelinen is the Executive Director, The City Region Deal, Data-Driven Innovation Initiative