Since 2012 Scotland’s Innovation Centres have proven a remarkable success. Sarah Devine looks at the work of four of them.
Scotland’s rich academic expertise has an unrivalled reputation for transforming innovations into successful commercial opportunities.This partnership between academia and entrepreneurship was one of the drivers behind the creation of the Innovation Centres (IC).
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) launched the £120 million Innovation Centre programme in 2012 in partnership with Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise.
Backed by the Scottish Government, it aims to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship by supporting transformational collaboration between universities and businesses across a range of markets.
The internationally-recognised programme draws on Scotland’s research expertise to solve problems identified by industry, while supporting the skills and training to develop the next generation of experts through masters and post-doctoral level studies.
In Vision Scotland’s Autumn 2017 issue we profiled four of the centres, and here we look at the others.
The Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre
The Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) was established in 2014 with a grant of £10m from the SFC and is hosted by Strathclyde University.
The centre is positioning Scotland as a key player in the industrial biotechnology (IB) sector, which uses biological substances and systems such as bacteria to produce goods for industry.
It is doing so by linking companies and academic institutions to produce commercially viable solutions for high-value manufacturing.
One of the main reasons for creating the IBioIC is to help reduce people’s reliance on fossil fuels and fossil-based materials through the development of biofuels.
This is in line with the Scottish Government’s ambitions to be a world-leading low carbon economy.
Roger Kilburn, chief executive of IBioIC, says: “Around 10 per cent of the crude oil barrel goes into the petrochemical industry, so there is a significant use of fossil fuels as petrochemicals and they are everywhere.”
“We are looking at biotechnology to replace standard chemical routes for making those materials.”
IBioIC’s work focuses on three activities: creating a community between industry and academia, funding academic projects and establishing development and training.
Through that first strand, IBioIC is the only IC in Scotland to have developed a paid-for membership programme and 111 companies have signed up so far.
“We’ve created this network as only around 40 per cent of biotechnology companies have a footprint in Scotland, so it is looking at companies that are way beyond just our own borders because the sector is global,” says Kilburn.
By providing a paid-for platform where the industry can collaborate with academics, the centre can limit the companies it works with to only those that have a vested interest.
The centre’s second area of activity is undertaking projects and providing funding for selected academic projects at universities.
“The projects are all industry-led, so we run competitions for industry to apply for where we help them identify an academic team to work with in order to solve a problem that they have,” says Kilburn.
An example of this is in the whisky industry. Horizon Proteins, based at Heriot-Watt University, specialises in the transformation of underused resources from the food and drink industries into higher value, quality products.
The company had developed a patented technology for the recovery of proteins and other macromolecules in the by-products from Scottish whisky manufacturing.
More than 570m litres of alcohol are produced annually by US whiskey distilleries, yielding 121,000 tonnes of protein. However, these by-products are quite distinct from those produced in Scotland, so a different strategy is required for separating out these valuable components.
With support from the IBioIC, Horizon Proteins’ technology has been adapted to deal with the American by-product, opening up a major market for the company.
The third focus of IBioIC is skills and the team has developed a collaborative MSc programme in industrial biotechnology and nearly 100 students have studied the course with almost two-thirds having successfully graduated. In addition, 44 PhDs have been funded with a value of more than £5.2m.
The Digital Health and Care Institute
The Digital Health and Care Institute (DHI) connects the public health and care sector with academia and industry in order to develop new healthcare products and services that will meet the needs of Scotland’s citizens for the future.
Set up in 2013 with a grant of £10m from the SFC, the centre’s vision is to help promote wellbeing and support individuals manage their health and care needs with the support of their families and communities as opposed to relying always on formal services.
To date, the centre has been involved in more than 150 projects.
“We span a whole host of different technologies, as well as looking at the underlying IT architecture,” says George Crooks, chief executive of the centre.
“In other words, we are looking at how our public and private sectors are connected so that we can allow data to flow much more easily and seamlessly across organisations.”
Currently, DHI is concentrating on the data generated by the increasingly-popular wearable devices and determining how information can be shared securely and effectively with healthcare professionals.
That data covers the likes of blood pressure, diabetes and asthma.
Similarly, it is exploring how information held by the health service can be shared with citizens so that an individual can access their own personal information in a way that is easy for them to understand.
Scientists at the DHI are also working with the health and care sector to help redesign its services, with a view to reducing pressure on NHS services.
“If you have diabetes, you have to go to the hospital regularly for a review and a follow-up, but we are looking at how you can manage it remotely using digital devices,” says Crooks.
“Maybe your smartphone or even your digital television at home can be used in a way that allows you to do more for yourself so that you only have to visit the doctor if you run into problems.
“We are also looking at how we can use the opportunities of the new 5G technology to see how health services can exploit the next generation of mobile technology,” he adds.
“We are ahead of the game because it isn’t implemented globally yet, but we are actually looking, with an eye to the future, at how we can best use that technology even before it is introduced.”
As with the other ICs, there is support for academic study. Students who have enrolled on an MSc course in Scotland can apply to DHI for funding from the SFC of up to £7,200 if that course is related to digital health systems, global eHealth or primary care.
Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems
Recognising the opportunity to exploit the commercial potential of sensor and imaging systems (SIS) technology to support significant growth for Scotland, the Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems (Censis) was established in 2013 with an initial sum of £10m.
With more than 170 companies in the SIS development base in Scotland, the sector employs more than 16,000 people and develops products and services to support end users in a range of important sectors for the Scottish economy.
“We work with these suppliers and help them create systems that encourage the development of new and exciting technology,” says Ian Reid, chief executive of Censis.
“Our focus is on data collection and monitoring and then taking that data and turning it into actionable and meaningful information.
“This involves lots of different types of data, everything from environmental and pollution monitoring to social care devices, but the principles remain the same in whatever sector we work in: to present information from sensors in ways that help to inform business decisions and create new business models.
“We don’t just focus on sensors. If you imagine sensor and imaging systems as a ‘stack’, going from the basic sensor element at the bottom of the stack that measures something, moving data up through the stack to be stored and analysed before finally visualising the information for presentation on a computer screen or tablet.”
A recent project that Censis has been involved in is an Internet of Things initiative spearheaded by iOpt Assets that has been tackling fuel poverty in social housing owned by Renfrewshire Council.
“Boxes about the size of a smoke detector have been fitted in a range of residential properties to detect temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels,” says Reid.
The data is collected in real time from the sensors and the council can then identify any anomalies.
“For social landlords, it helps them to identify problems. Consistently high humidity and low temperatures could indicate a tenant is living in fuel poverty, while high carbon dioxide levels may suggest a problem with ventilation and air quality, for example.”
Censis has been involved in 107 projects in many different sectors since it was launched.
One of these is subsea and offshore marine science, where data gathered using sensor and imaging technologies supports a host of projects, from monitoring corrosion in offshore platforms to preventing marine mammal collisions with tidal turbines.
Censis has also worked with the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow to develop an MSc in SIS to train the next generation of sensor systems experts.
The SFC provides funding for up to 15 places on this programme.
The centre also supports an engineering doctorate (EngD) and a small number of PhD students.
The Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre
The Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) was set up to capitalise on Scotland’s world-leading position in precision medicine.
It has brought together experts from the biopharmaceutical industry, the NHS and academia to find the right medicines for the right patients at the right dose, at the right time.
The centre was set up in 2013 in the Clinical Innovation Zone at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow with an initial investment of £8m from the SFC.
The reason for Scotland’s global reputation for precision medicine is the fact that we have a single, unified health system, according to Dr Diane Harbison, chief executive of SMS-IC.
“We have a unique patient identifier, a stable population of around five million and first-rate healthcare data,” she adds.
Among the six projects SMS-IC has run is FutureMS led by the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at Edinburgh University in collaboration with NHS Scotland.
FutureMS hopes to revolutionise the way multiple sclerosis (MS) is treated.
“MS is a real problem for Scotland as we have one of the highest incidences in the world,” says Harbison.
“The project is creating a Scotland-wide informatics and imaging platform, bringing together health information to help inform how we can clinically manage patients with MS.”
Relapse-remitting MS is unpredictable and it is currently difficult to tell how severe relapses will be.
With 11 licensed drugs in use to reduce the relapse rate, choosing the right one for the right person, at the right time, can be challenging.
Using a variety of sources of health information and samples from patients recently diagnosed with MS, the project aims to mine this data with the intention of generating tools to predict how MS is going to manifest itself in an individual patient.
Successful SMS-IC projects have focused on areas which are of international concern including ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and pancreatic cancer.
The centre also provides collaborative workspaces and runs several services including next generation sequencing solutions, consultancy and electronic data capture.
“Scotland has world-leading research-intensive universities and a really high quality research community,” says Harbison.
“At SMS-IC, we have the ability to work with our partners, to access tissue samples and patient electronic health records and to collaborate with people in industry – that could be big pharmaceutical companies or small start-up companies.
“We can help move their projects forward: SMS-IC provides a
mechanism for reducing barriers to entry for companies who want to take precision medicine approaches.”