THE UK government’s innovation agency is to set up a permanent base in Scotland, which it hopes to be operational by the end of the year and joined by about a dozen regional offices.
Innovate UK looks to support pioneering science and technology to help drive economic growth while investing in companies, and is putting down roots north of the Border as it evolves better to help growing businesses.
Over the past three years the initiative has committed to invest more than £130 million in Scotland and has supported more than 700 projects involving Scots firms, universities and other organisations.
Visiting some of the Scottish ventures it has backed, including tech start-up hub CodeBase, biofuel specialist Celtic Renewables, health informatics firm Aridhia and seasoning business Mara Seaweed, Innovate UK’s chief executive, Ruth McKernan, told Scotland on Sunday that she was “very supportive and enthusiastic about Scotland”.
McKernan, who took the helm in May last year, said: “Having a proper, permanent presence here is going to be important, it’s going to be helpful. It’s a nation of inventors and there’s a huge amount to admire here.”
The location of the base is still being finalised, she added, saying it “has got to really help people across the whole of Scotland, so somewhere where everybody can get to. We’ve just got to be practical about it”.
She added that compared to other parts of the UK, Scotland “punches above its weight significantly”. In the current financial year the organisation’s commitments north of the Border (including its Catapult centres to grow innovation in specific areas) represented about 11.5 per cent of its total funding at just over £51m, compared with its 8 per cent share of the UK population.
Additionally, the Scottish Government has contributed to many Innovate UK projects, including £5m for an assisted living project for social care.
McKernan said Innovate UK always had a good presence in Scotland, but is looking to work more closely with Scottish Enterprise (SE) “to help the strong companies in Scotland grow more quickly and get international recognition and international customers”.
She said the organisation is trying to simplify what it does and make access to its funding easier as well as focus more on the biggest levers in each sector for improving productivity. Ways to help include improving innovation, helping develop new products, with a focus on research and development and economic analysis.
“In its first eight years I think Innovate UK did a really fantastic job of spreading innovation throughout the whole landscape, throughout the nations and regions of the UK as well as the technology and scientific landscape, and I think now is the time to focus more.”
Asked about the most rewarding part of her job, she said it is “talking to innovators and seeing their excitement at how they’ve been able to make something, to grow a company and to know that Innovate UK contributed to that, most likely at the early stages.
“A little bit of money in the right hands at the right time goes a long way,” she added.
One example is keyboard app developer SwiftKey, which last week announced it was being acquired by Microsoft in a deal reported to be worth $250m, having been founded in 2008 by two young friends and supported by a £15,000 Innovate UK grant.
McKernan said: “What we really want to do is fund micro and small businesses but measure the medium-sized businesses because it’s the medium ones that employ people, pay taxes and really contribute to the economy.”