Helping to ignite Scotland’s entrepreneurial flair

How can data and artificial intelligence be used to help the country’s women entrepreneurs? David Lee meets two dynamic business leaders who depend on both for their enterprises, and learns how the Data Driven Entrepreneurship programme is supporting and encouraging them
“We want to support entrepreneurship and the use of data to develop new solutions and technologies to support change for the better within society and business."“We want to support entrepreneurship and the use of data to develop new solutions and technologies to support change for the better within society and business."
“We want to support entrepreneurship and the use of data to develop new solutions and technologies to support change for the better within society and business."

It’s a big ambition – to support positive change within society and business. That’s the aim of the Data Driven Entrepreneurship programme at the University of Edinburgh.

Charlotte Waugh, enterprise and innovation programme lead at Edinburgh Innovations, the university’s commercialisation service, explains: “We want to support entrepreneurship and the use of data to develop new solutions and technologies to support change for the better within society and business.

“Data is being used to some extent in most businesses now. We’re trying to take it beyond data analytics to look at creating new – or better – products or services, using data.”

Helping to ignite Scotland’s entrepreneurial flairHelping to ignite Scotland’s entrepreneurial flair
Helping to ignite Scotland’s entrepreneurial flair

This fits Edinburgh’s ambition to be a leading entrepreneurial university, and a data capital. In 2018, the university launched its £660 million Data-Driven Innovation initiative, to open six innovation hubs as part of its role in the City Region Deal.

“Edinburgh supported or created 105 start-ups across the university last year – the highest number in Scotland,” says Waugh. “There’s growing interest among students and staff in entrepreneurship, to use research as a catalyst for creating start-ups in areas such as AI, robotics, and medtech.”

Diversity is a major consideration for increasing entrepreneurship in these data-rich sectors. Waugh highlights that female managers lead both the university ’s AI Accelerator and Venture Builder incubator programmes, delivered with the university’s AI and Innovation Hub, the Bayes Centre.

“We’re walking the talk on diversity and numbers of female entrepreneurs are increasing, but there’s always more to do, because we’re dealing with a legacy of male domination,” explains Waugh.

The Venture Builder is aimed at PhD students. “They have heavy workloads, so we want to support them if they wish to go down the entrepreneurship route, but not detract from their studies,” says Waugh.

“It’s a ‘light touch’ flexible programme and we work with partners, like Cancer Research UK, who are interested in developing solutions in particular areas.”

The AI Accelerator targets high-growth companies. “Scotland is more focused on early-stage start-ups, less so on scale-ups,” observes Waugh. “What’s unusual is that the AI Accelerator takes global applications. We’re looking for the very best in AI, to address issues like climate change and healthcare, and to use AI for good. We want to attract great companies to the Edinburgh region and university – to stay here, employ people, create products and bring clusters of companies to the area.”

What specific support are companies on the AI Accelerator looking for? “To attract bigger series A-plus investments, they need the right documentation, the right team, to be able to tell their story, to understand cash flow and exporting. They might need support around leadership, running a board, and financial investment. We fund experts to work with them, to move them forward. We only take 12 onto the Accelerator and can support them individually.”

One company on the AI Accelerator is Danu Robotics, led by chief executive Xiaoyan Ma, which sorts rubbish using robotic arms. “It helps reduce waste, and supports a circular economy,” says Waugh. “It’s doing a pilot with Glasgow City Council, and looking for scale-up investment.

“We also support, founded by Rachel Curtis to develop an AI-driven affordability tool to help people in debt complete income and expenditure assessment forms.”

On the Venture Builder are firms like Gambit Bio, which is developing saliva-based lateral flow tests for early cancer detection, and Medicare, which seeks to address bed blocking in hospitals using data-driven technology to help patient flows.

Waugh likens the DDE’s work to “adrenaline running in the bloodstream of the entrepreneurial ecosystem”, adding: “Everyone loves entrepreneurs; they bring excitement and jobs, passion and investment.

“DDE demonstrates what we’re all trying to achieve – to get research out into the marketplace. We have an entrepreneurial university and want to help people, to build momentum.

“We’re trying to join things up, not duplicate. We work with partners like Scottish Enterprise, TechScaler and other universities to ensure we’re all pulling together.”

The AI Accelerator opened last month, with global applications in AI for Climate Change, AI for Health, and AI for Good.

Ishani Malholtra (IM) is founder and chief executive of Carcinotech and Alex Reissig (AR) is co-founder of Smplicare.

What do your businesses do, and why is data and AI important?

IM: Carcinotech accelerates drug testing and makes sure effective treatments get to market in a rapid, accurate and ethical manner, so patients access better cancer treatments.

We have data at every step of our process, from samples from patient biopsies right through to the drug testing process. Data proves what we do. Each step of the process has data collection, which dictates how treatments are working and how patients are responding.

We’ve got fantastic scientists to design experiments to collect data we need. There’s a lot of automation and robotics involved, which gives consistent, accurate results. That’s so important in preclinical testing.

We’ve also got a great advisory board to review data and ensure we’re collecting it properly.

AR: [We use] data and AI to prevent common adverse outcomes in older adults – such as the impact of falls. We support the UK Government’s objective to give people five extra years of healthy life.

So much new health data is coming from low-cost devices – wearables and fitness trackers, etc – but it isn’t being used effectively for the people it’s about to make better decisions about older adult health and preventative medicine.

What sets apart businesses who do data well?AR: I think it’s about using it holistically – taking it from one source and applying it to other areas of the business to get deeper knowledge.It’s about using quantitative and qualitative data, combining it and, ultimately, using it effectively to make our lives easier and better.

How did the University of Edinburgh help you?

AR: It’s opened many doors, primarily through university expertise in health data, and interactions with The Data Lab.

All the Edinburgh universities work so hard to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship, and open doors for people who don’t have tech backgrounds and wouldn’t traditionally enter the entrepreneurial world.

IM: We got lots of support shaping the investment strategy and, as part of the AI Accelerator, help raising investment. The programme also provided funding, which was really crucial.

What more would help?

IM: What would be really beneficial is to get connected to the US and European markets through the university’s fantastic networks.

AR: Edinburgh has incredible talent and innovation, but maybe more could be done for businesses who want to be global to get seats at the table with people in Silicon Valley and London. We want to make Scotland proud but need more access to global networks.

What makes a good entrepreneur?

IM: You have to learn how to take failure with a pinch of salt. You can’t always have success. Learn from those failures, get feedback, and improve. Good entrepreneurs recognise [when] they need help. Recognise your shortfalls and hire someone who can do a job better – you can’t do everything.

AR: Resilience and being optimistic. Stick with it, be willing to pivot – be convinced you can get things right.

What more needs to be done for female entrepreneurs?

IM: Access to funding and support is very limited for women entrepreneurs, especially if you’re a sole woman.

Women are often not taken as seriously when it comes to delivering milestones or taking risks. The Stewart/Logan report came at a good time. It’s not sugar-coating anything; it’s saying there is a lack of support for women entrepreneurs and we need to address it.

AR: The Stewart/Logan report rings true, there is not so much funding or access to entrepreneurial networks. The recommendations are great, but we need to recognise large institutions – like governments and universities – change slowly and we can’t rely solely on them.

What next ?

IM: We are launching our Series A investment to help us expand into the US – to start hiring a US sales team and get partners on board because the US is our biggest market. We want to keep our headquarters in Scotland, but to grow market outreach. We’re getting good traction from pharma companies, contract research organisations and hospitals, but want to ensure we’re able to scale up to meet those demands. Longer term, [we want] to be at the forefront of preclinical testing.

AR: We want to get our falls algorithm ready for the market, then go into other health areas. We want to get the solution out there to the community which needs it most. All this data we collect gives greater insights... it’s a fantastic dataset. There is a lot of good we can do.

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