Lesley Yellowlees: When great ideas converge

Professor Lesley Yellowlees, vice-principal and head of the College of Science & Engineering at Edinburgh University
Professor Lesley Yellowlees, vice-principal and head of the College of Science & Engineering at Edinburgh University
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Converge Challenge describes itself as the foremost business idea competition in Scotland, but I think it’s much more than that.

It also offers ongoing support to aspiring entrepreneurs as well as vital funding towards their enterprise through joint funding from Scottish Funding Council and eight of Scotland’s universities – and I’m delighted to say that includes the University of Edinburgh.

I remember when I first learned about Converge Challenge. I had recently started my role at Edinburgh University and I was shadowing Nigel Brown, the previous head of science and engineering. He introduced me to Olga Kozlova, director and founder of Converge Challenge, as someone he thought it was important for me to meet.

I was really excited about Converge Challenge and found it so refreshingly different from everything else. I got the concept straight away and said: “Count us in and count me in.”

And I have watched Converge Challenge grow over the intervening years with awe. Over the last four years we’ve seen 415 entries from a huge variety of industrial backgrounds and engagement with a record 17 universities and research institutes across the whole of Scotland.

As the head of science and engineering at the University of Edinburgh, I’m proud of our involvement and of the level of involvement the university has had, particularly through Edinburgh Research & Innovation along with Launch.ed, the university’s free service for student entrepreneurs.

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Last year the University of Edinburgh had one of our most successful years in Converge Challenge and I make no apology for blowing the trumpets of our winners.

Richard Walker is a post-doctoral fellow from the School of Engineering and won the first place prize in 2015, which included £35,000 in funding and £25,000 in business support towards his business Photon Force. Photon Force designs, builds and supplies scientific sensors that can very precisely detect and measure single photons. I find it completely mind blowing that people can do that and then make a business from it as well!

Salman Tahir, a research assistant from the School of Biological Sciences, won the KickStart Award for his company Xi: cross linking analysis software. Salman identified a market opportunity for specialist software that studies the cross linking interactions in proteins to perform crucial data analysis of interest to molecular and structural biologists.

I should also point out that Hannah Dimsdale, a student from University of Edinburgh College of Art, won the Entrepreneurial Spirit award for her business idea for Teadough: a doughnut “recipe” kit that was inspired by one of her ancestors, Elizabeth Dimsdale, who invented the doughnut back in 1803. I’m only sorry that I was unable to sample her wares, but I’m told they’re delicious!

I think this ably demonstrates what a divergent and diverse set of winners it is possible to have in the Converge Challenge. So, for Edinburgh University there was a lot to celebrate in 2015. And I want there to be lots more for us to celebrate in 2016.

This year, Converge Challenge is engaging with 17 universities and research institutes across Scotland and I’m delighted to see that the male:female ratio is 30 per cent. I would love it to be 50 per cent but 30 per cent is a good start.

I also think it’s good to know that in the last four years, from 120 entrepreneurs who have received training, 51 have now formed companies. That’s a great success rate and these companies have secured huge amounts of funding (£15 million to date) and employ 139 staff.

Let’s make 2016 even better, let’s take this competition to our hearts, let’s engage with it, grow these ideas, and grow Scottish companies. That’s my kind of challenge.

• Professor Lesley Yellowlees is vice-principal and head of the College of Science & Engineering at the University of Edinburgh