THE Scottish economy will greatly benefit from a partnership between its universities and industry sectors, says David Lott
The “triple helix” – the partnership of entrepreneurial universities, engaged businesses and active Government – is recognised globally as key to stimulating innovation and driving a knowledge economy.
This model has a strong hold in Scotland and is now taking a new, exciting form in the creation of six innovation centres. The centres, supported by the Scottish Funding Council in partnership with Scotland’s enterprise agencies, look to establish close bonds between Scotland’s universities and her major industry sectors to translate knowledge and expertise into areas where it can have the greatest social and economic effect for Scotland.
The centres, launched this year and in the latter part of 2013, sit within the construction industry, in oil and gas, stratified medicine, digital health, industrial bio-tech, and sensors and imaging.
There will also be impacts across the Scottish economy including renewables, manufacturing and transport. The innovation centre model looks to establish and maintain open communities of university staff, research institutes, businesses and others. Collaboration is already in the genes of Scotland’s higher education sector as institutions have spent the best part of the last decade “pooling” their globally recognised research strengths to use Scotland’s size as a nation to best advantage. Innovation centres extend the collaborative model into formal partnerships between multiple universities and businesses. All partners benefit; universities work to solve industry-defined problems, realising tangible business gains. Universities gain from the stimulation and challenges posed to their researchers.
The Scottish Funding Council, which has led the innovation centre programme, looks for clear evidence of industry demand and the potential for high growth in every proposal. Take, for example, the Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems, with 12 university partners and a range of industry partners including IBM, Selex ES, BAE systems and BP. It is expected to deliver 150 research projects with a return of between £374 and £596 million to the Scottish economy based on an initial investment of £10m. This industry is already worth £2.3 billion a year to Scotland and Scottish Enterprise has identified it as having further high growth potential, with wireless solutions expected to grow globally by 48 per cent per year.
With each innovation centre focused on a key industrial opportunity, businesses in these sectors – from multinational to the smallest local SMEs – can connect with the best of cutting-edge research through one partnership. In the construction sector, more than 31,000 existing Scottish businesses will be able to work with the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, launched in March this year, as a one-stop-shop to access academic experts and support from 11 universities.
Similarly, in the oil and gas industry the innovation centre announced in February will bring together more than 2,300 operators and service companies with more than 450 researchers working on technologies specific to oil and gas across 12 universities. The goals of the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre align with those of industry to increase production and reduce costs. To achieve this, universities will work with industry to develop groundbreaking technical solutions.
While each innovation centre has been tailored to the needs of very different industries, the drive for an economic return is a shared, vital objective.
Alongside this, there will be social and health benefits for Scotland. For some sectors these benefits are particularly pronounced, for example, the two separate Innovation Centres for Digital Health and Stratified Medicine are focused on improving the quality and efficiency of healthcare delivered in Scotland. Stratified medicine involves examining the genetic makeup of patients and their differing responses to drugs designed to treat disease. By building up an understanding of the “strata” of responses and the genetics of the diseases, medical researchers hope to create more personalised and effective forms of treatment for chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
This is much needed – of the £595bn global spend for pharmaceuticals in 2011, more than half was spent on therapies which did not produce the desired effect. With changing demands on health services across the world, the work on digital health aims to develop innovative new technologies to transform the quality of people’s lives and to export those products and services globally.
These six centres, with more expected to follow for other key sectors, mark an exciting opportunity for Scotland’s universities and her businesses, both large and small. Alongside support from SFC and the enterprise agencies, these new partnerships are well set to deliver significant social and economic benefit for Scotland.
• David Lott is deputy director (Policy) at Universities Scotland