The Big Interview: Dr Gillian Murray, deputy principal (enterprise and business) at Heriot-Watt University

Dr Gillian Murray is deputy principal (enterprise and business) at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, having in 2016 taken on what was a newly created position.

Her remit was to lead on the development and implementation of Heriot-Watt’s enterprise and business engagement strategy, having previously served as director of the Virtual Engineering Centre at the University of Liverpool.

She explains that she has always been intrigued by innovation. “As a newly qualified engineer on a graduate training course, I was inspired by Richard Noble’s dream to break the land speed record and his passion and belief that if you can dream and believe in yourself you can achieve. I have always adopted this ethos.”

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Dr Murray has helped bring about Heriot-Watt’s recently inaugurated Medical Device Manufacturing Centre (MDMC), which says it aims to provide resources essential for companies seeking to translate medical device concepts into commercial products – with its services offered at no cost to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

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The MDMC recently held its inauguration – how pivotal a moment is its official launch for Scotland’s life sciences and biomedical sector, but also the nation as a whole?

The inauguration was a hugely proud moment for the four universities involved in this unique, multi-million-pound facility, after the event was delayed due to successive lockdowns. It marks a key milestone in the growth and development of Scotland’s blossoming life sciences and biomedical sectors, demonstrating an ongoing commitment to supporting SMEs.

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Scotland is a nation of innovators, but it’s hugely challenging to bring a new medical device to market. The MDMC is accelerating life-changing medical devices from concept into commercial products. It is addressing the common barriers SMEs face when trying to launch a new device.

Our staff provide technically supported access to its £2 million specialist manufacturing facilities, uniting engineers and scientists who work closely with clinicians. In just two years, the MDMC has created a unique business collaboration model, working with more than 60 Scottish companies, accelerating the progression of innovative ideas to market and the adoption of medical devices into clinical settings.

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The MDMC 'is accelerating life-changing medical devices from concept into commercial products', Dr Murray says. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

You’re working with partner universities to give SMEs access to help in, say, navigating medical regulations… can you explain more about this?

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The MDMC is a first-of-its-kind facility in Scotland because it brings together the expertise of Heriot-Watt University with specialists based at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Robert Gordon in Aberdeen. The impact these four world-leading universities have had on the success of supported companies is already evident in our initial impact results.

At the height of the pandemic, for example, we worked closely with additive manufacturing specialist Abergower. Our multidisciplinary team helped to develop a new manufacturing facility in Abergower’s premises for the mass-production of 3D-printed Covid-19 testing swabs that can collect sufficient viral material from the nose without a throat swab.

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'I have a passion for creating opportunity and driving economic regeneration through education and knowledge exchange,' she also states. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
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These types of swabs are now being used by more than 20 million people in the USA. Abergower needed academic expertise regarding the swab itself and its manufacturing approach to meet regulatory standards here in the UK.

Taking a unique approach to accelerating a product to market, this collaboration in partnership with the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service, created an entirely new manufacturing facility proving essential for a resilient, sustainable, and indigenous supply chain of critical medical components during a global crisis.

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Abergower’s manufacturing facility is now working with key academic institutions in the UK and a range of customers to develop new products and services in the medical technology (medtech) marketspace that will be used globally.

Scotland has a long history of creating pioneering medical devices, such as, say, MRI scanners as well as more recently Current Health’s wearable device to monitor a person’s vital signs being deemed so significant it was put on display in the V&A Dundee. How do you see the MDMC continuing this legacy, helping improve people’s lives?

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Scotland has a long and proud history of medical innovations that have transformed lives and we’re confident that the unique support offered by the MDMC will continue that legacy. Heriot-Watt has delivered more than 200 years of pioneering and transformative research on the global stage and we’re continuing to push new frontiers in science, technology, engineering, business, and design through the MDMC.

The companies we are supporting are wide-ranging in terms of their ideas and knowledge base. Confidence Plus, for example, makes a device for dignity to contain stoma bag leaks. Invented on an attic sewing machine, it is set to revolutionise the lives of thousands living with stoma bags as well as saving the NHS considerable time and expense.

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The MDMC has helped Confidence Plus to become the first Scottish organisation to trial new software licensed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for assessment of the company’s product in healthcare management settings. We are supporting the company into clinical settings as quickly as possible.

Navigating the process of clinical evaluation is difficult and tortuous for new companies. The NHS regulatory landscape is necessarily complex to protect patients, but it also slows down the introduction of products that could save significant money, reduce nurse intervention and free up hospital beds.

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You’re passionate about the crucial need to tackle skills shortages, saying 85 million jobs could go unfilled by the end of the decade if employees don’t have the right know-how. Can you give details of relevant efforts in this regard by areas within your remit, for example Heriot-Watt Online?

In today’s economy, the skills needed to succeed are rapidly evolving. Industry is struggling to hire talent in high-growth areas including tech, sales, health, and management.

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According to the World Economic Forum, the global workforce is predicted to grow by 230 million by 2030, and up to half of today’s jobs, around 2 billion, are changing due to new technology, decarbonisation, and growth industries. Universities will play a central and growing role in addressing this skill shortage.

Heriot-Watt has spent several years undertaking a detailed analysis, identifying where the gaps are in skills and talent to ensure our courses are being directly matched to the requirements of industry. The result is Heriot-Watt Online, our new global education initiative that includes Masters in subjects like digital leadership, data analytics, and supply chain logistics.

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New programmes set to launch soon include sustainability and energy transition. We are working with businesses to co-create and co-deliver solutions to the current and future talent needs.

It is important when supporting industry and delivering a talent and skills revolution that we start with leadership; in this rapidly changing world, it is critical we create learning-agile leaders capable of driving transformation.

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Where else does more need to be done to boost skills, such as Scotland gaining more funded collaborative hubs…?

Our approach closely aligns with Scotland’s Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board’s Working Collaboratively for a Better Scotland plan. This strategy and our own experience show the clear benefits of collaboration and we strongly support further investment in funded specialist collaborative hubs that bring together research and university support to address the needs of key industrial sectors.

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The MDMC provides a template for life sciences and the biomedical sector that can be replicated across other disciplines and sectors to the benefit of the Scottish public and the economy.

What led you to take on your current role and what do you aim to achieve in the near and longer term? What is your biggest challenge?

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I have a passion for creating opportunity and driving economic regeneration through education and knowledge exchange. I joined Heriot-Watt because of the University’s reputation for the practical application of knowledge and the potential to truly make a difference to global challenges through its distinctive global footprint.

In terms of my goals, I am a great believer in the superpowers of our universities, collectively applying excellence in research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and talent-development to make a transformational impact on the lives of individuals, businesses, communities, and economies.

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I hope to create more successful business-support programmes like the MDMC within the next year. We are also shaping our new Global Research Institute focused on tackling the climate emergency, looking to business for input to ensure our plans align with future needs.

In addition, I have plans to develop an exciting new Innovation Park on our Edinburgh campus. We were pioneers of business support when we opened one of Europe’s first Research Parks in 1971 and, over the next ten to 15 years, we hope to create up to 10,000 new jobs through fully developing the land we have within our existing Research Park to create a vibrant smart campus.

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