How Edinburgh University and Heriot Watt are driving Data Driven Innovation

Jane Bradley hears about how two Edinburgh universities are collaborating to innovate

Prime Minister Theresa May, City of Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after signing the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal at the University of Edinburgh. Picture: PA

They are two hugely diverse institutions: one established in 1821 as the first ever mechanics institute and the other the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world, with centuries of academic expertise.

Yet it is the combined expertise of academics and entrepreneurs from Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh universities who are to work together to create data-driven innovations that could transform Edinburgh into the data capital of Europe – and solve a variety of social and industrial problems through the use of robotics.

The universities are to benefit from millions of pounds of investment as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal to create innovations based on data science – the collecting, organising and interpreting of large sets of digital information.

The deal, which was agreed last year and was finalised in August, will see £350 million of capital funding delivered over the next 15 years to support the development of data-driven research partnerships and an increase in graduate data skills.

The University of Edinburgh, ranked first in the UK for its computer science and informatics research, says the deal will allow it to work on projects which will help all citizens adapt to the data economy.

It says senior citizens can be helped to understand more about how their personal data is used, while schoolchildren will gain basic skills in interpreting and handling data and workers can improve their knowledge of statistics and analysis in roles that will make increasing use of data.

Meanwhile, data specialists such as coders and analysts will be equipped with the skills to allow organisations to transform services and products.

Charlie Jeffery, the university’s senior vice principal, who worked on the City Deal for more than three years, says the projects would give Edinburgh an ongoing “comparative advantage” over rival areas.

“The deal is something which will help the universities to extend significantly what is already a very strong capability in translating the latest technological advancements into applications which have an impact on all sorts of fields,” he says.

“What is striking about Edinburgh is the way a data innovation ecosystem has emerged in the last decade linking university research and graduate talent with business.”

He pointed to companies such as Edinburgh-headquartered CodeBase, an incubator for technological start-ups, as well as established tech firms such as Amazon, and have a large office in the capital, which have raised the city’s profile as a technological hub.

He adds: “It is the fantastic mix of a wonderful city to live in and this wonderful cutting-edge research at the universities, as well as coming together with everything from entrepreneurial start-ups to global giants.”

Dr George Baxter, chief executive of Edinburgh Innovations, which supports collaborations between companies and researchers at Edinburgh University, left Nottingham University to take up his post two years ago specifically because of the proposed City Region Deal.

He said: “Having been involved in City Deals in my previous role, this one really is unique. I could immediately see the difference in approach, it was the entrepreneurial spirit of the universities. It was one of the main reasons I decided to come here.”

The investments will be used to create and drive activity within new innovation hubs, such as the Bayes Centre which will bring together around 600 data science researchers, students, and staff from organisations across the public, private and third sectors. The university decided to go ahead with the creation of the centre “at risk”, expecting that the City Region Deal funding would be forthcoming. Other institutions are in the planning stages, while refurbishment of a former hospital building in Lauriston to transform it into the Edinburgh Futures Institute is also under way.

The £22 million National Robotarium, to be based on the Heriot-Watt campus, is a collaboration between the two universities which will also see the robotics function at the University of Edinburgh’s Bayes Centre improved. It is hoped that research carried out in the Robotarium, which will be completed by 2021, will tackle issues of social care as well as industrial applications.

The Robotarium will see robotics used for practical applications, such as decommissioning oil rigs in environments where it is risky for people to go, as well as alert systems which help elderly people living alone or in other social care settings.

Heriot-Watt is regarded as a world leader in robotics and human-computer interaction, having last year taken third place in the international $3.5m Amazon Alexa Prize, which demonstrates the ability to interact with computers.

“This is where the partnership with Heriot-Watt works very well,” adds Baxter. “We have very complimentary skills.”

The two institutions have worked together on various projects for a number of years.

“Together we are stronger than we would be separately,” says Baxter.

“It allows us to work on projects that we wouldn’t be able to work on on our own because we would not have the staff and they are in the same position.

“Universities are an unusual environment in that people work together very well. People always ask: are universities competitive? The answer is that they are in some respects but, where there is any opportunity to collaborate, we are very ready to do so.”

The UK’s National Supercomputer Centre at Edinburgh University’s Advanced Computing Facility at Easter Bush already runs the supercomputer facilities for all of Britain’s universities.

One of the major data projects set to be launched following the completion of the City Region Deal is the creation of data storage and analysis technology that will allow large datasets to be brought together from public and private sector organisations.

Edinburgh Innovations will be responsible for commercialising any opportunities which come out of data research carried out as a result of the City Region Deal.

Currently spinning off about 40 companies a year – many of them run by students – it has a target to create 400 firms specifically from City Deal funding over the next

15 years.

Because of the City Region Deal, it is expected that 21,000 jobs will be created and Baxter believes a large proportion of them will come from university spin-offs.

Professor Gill Hogg, deputy principal of Heriot-Watt, says that other universities and colleges would also ultimately be involved in projects which are spun out of the City Region Deal.

“It is a catalyst for much closer collaboration between the universities,” she says. “We see it as a very exciting opportunity.”

She adds that the benefits from the City Region Deal would have a long-standing impact on skills in the area.

Almost half of Heriot-Watt’s first degree graduates remain in the Edinburgh area to work after graduation. She says: “It is not just about research, it is also about teaching and ensuring that our graduates have the best data skills. It will involve expanding our data skills courses at the university.”

Adam McVey, leader of Edinburgh City Council, says: “Thanks to Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and our other fantastic universities and colleges, all key partners in the City Region Deal, we are already home to a wealth of world-class research and development.

“Their research into new data technologies and the skills of our graduates have helped establish Edinburgh as one of the main centres of the digital economy in the UK – and this significant new investment will cement our position still further.”

For more information about the City Region Deal click here.