Edward Cunningham: Enterprising way to develop talent and help economy

MORE academics are going into business, writes Edward Cunningham

Royal Society of Edinburgh

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) has recently awarded 11 new Enterprise Fellowships (EF); the biggest cohort intake in the history of the scheme.

EFs are granted to individuals seeking to commercialise innovative ideas; especially those resulting from research and technology. The objective of the initiative is to support innovators’ transition into successful entrepreneurs with viable commercial companies.

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With support from Scottish Enterprise, BBSRC and STFC, the scheme allows awardees to focus solely on developing their businesses. Awardees receive one year’s salary, expert business training, business development funding and access to mentors from a pool of RSE business Fellows and other successful individuals in the commercial community.

Over the 19 years the EF scheme has been in operation, it has supported over 200 fellowships. A recent survey engaging former Enterprise Fellows highlighted that over 140 hi-tech businesses have been formed with the support of the scheme across the UK. Survey feedback from the survey also showed that around 80 per cent of the companies created after the EFs are either still trading or have been acquired by larger organisations. Impressively, respondents reported having attracted over £63.5 million in follow-on investment. It all shows the importance to Scotland’s economy of encouraging academics to consider commercialisation.

The companies created cover a broad spectrum of sectors: from real-time 3D audio technology to drug-free malaria treatment; heritage barley cultivation to sustainable skis for the free-ride market. The range of businesses also illustrates the scope of Scotland’s current environment for new technology companies.

Recent successes of former Enterprise Fellows include:

• Last month, Barry Johnson, Founder and company director of Orkney-based tidal energy firm Scotrenewables, received a €10m (£7.7m) boost from the European Commission’s Horizon2020 programme.

• In January of this year, David Hunter, chief executive of Shot Scope, a company specialising in wearable golf technology, launched his company’s first products in America. They currently have pre-orders from 14 countries worldwide for their Shot Scope wristband.

• Abesh Thakur, CEO of Two Big Ears, a company which designs immersive and interactive audio applications, was an Enterprise Fellow last year. His company has since worked with Björk on the 360º virtual reality video for Stonemilker and Massive Attack on their iOS app, Fantom – gaming companies and filmmakers. A couple of the films they have worked on were showcased at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

EFs run for a year but the legacy of the training and learning has a longer lasting effect. The RSE aims to keep in touch with former participants, inviting them to champion the scheme in universities where they have formed connections and undertaken research. The programme is also carefully designed to put Fellows in touch with those with expertise in technology-based businesses.

Networks such as the RSE’s Entrepreneurs’ Club aim to support the retention and propagation of former participants’ essential knowledge and experience. The club meets regularly for knowledge exchange events and networking sessions.

Looking to the wider entrepreneur support ecosystem which exists in Scotland, the EF initiative has benefited from working in partnership with schemes such as Converge Challenge, a business competition for Scottish university students and staff, and Enterprise Campus, a support organisation working to support postgraduates in setting up new high-growth businesses.

Last month, the RSE took the EF initiative to the north of Scotland, with an Enterprise Roadshow. Travelling with colleagues from Converge Challenge and Enterprise Campus to promote entrepreneurialism in Orkney, Inverness and Oban, the Roadshow visited several University of the Highlands and Islands campuses, as well as the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

Each workshop was well attended by budding entrepreneurs who heard presentations from each of the initiatives about the wide range of support on offer.

There has never been a better time to start up or spin out a company in Scotland. With such a strong record of success, the RSE’s Enterprise Fellowship Scheme grows in popularity, allowing aspiring entrepreneurs to take those important first steps toward building a thriving business, while supporting the growth of Scotland’s economy and the nation’s great tradition for nurturing innovation. We look forward to seeing the strength of the competition for these prestigious opportunities grow and grow.

• Edward Cunningham CBE is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Chair of its Enterprise Fellowship Scheme. The Enterprise Fellowship Scheme has two intakes a year, the next being in May. For more information on the Enterprise Fellowships, please visit bit.ly/RSE-Ent-Fellowships