How do Scotland's Innovation Centres support industry?

In 2012, the Scottish Funding Council launched its multi- million-pound Innovation Centre (IC) programme, in partnership with Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. The aim was to support transformational collaboration between universities and businesses.Three ICs were established to test the model and following extensive market research, a further five centres were launched to tackle specific industries from aquaculture to oil and gas, construction and data science.Backed by the Scottish Government, the ICs draw on Scotland's research expertise to solve problems and embrace opportunities identified by industry. They support skills and training to develop the next generation of researchers, fund masters and PhD provision, and host knowledge exchange events to build national and international networks within specific sectors.

The Construction Scotland Innovation Centre. Photo: Andy Buchanan

THE DATA LAB

Established in 2014 with an £11.3 million grant from the Scottish Funding Council, the Data Lab’s mission is to revolutionise Scottish industry in how it develops and applies cutting-edge analytics and data science.

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The Data Lab works to net new market opportunities, boost productivity and connect experts. It enables industry, the public sector and researchers to innovate and develop new data science capabilities in a collaborative environment.

Since it was launched, the Data Lab has invested £2m in 55 projects across a range of sectors from cyber security to health, energy and legal services, with the companies it has worked with predicting an increase in revenue of £80m and creating 260 high-value jobs.

“The projects are very varied from working with a subsea pipeline inspection company to a project with Albyn Housing where we have funded some academics from Robert Gordon University to look at patterns and behaviours coming from sensors in the homes that [the housing association] has built,” says Gillian Docherty, chief executive of the Data Lab.

Analysing data in this way could be the key to stopping a tenant having an accident before it happens.

“We work across a real breadth of industries and scale but at the heart of them all is a novel and innovative application of data science.”

Another matchmaking success has been the partnership between Aggreko and Strathclyde University, facilitated by the Data Lab.

Aggreko provides strategic power solutions to various industry sectors including oil and gas, events and construction, and with customers around the world relying on Aggreko to keep their businesses running, the company was keen to monitor and predict maintenance issues with its generators to reduce the potential impact for customers.

Aggreko’s applications development team made the first move, approaching the Data Lab for support to develop a system which could predict equipment issues by analysing historical data and comparing it with current systems.

In partnership with Strathclyde, the team developed a system that analyses information sent from generators to Aggreko’s data centre and identifies data patterns that correspond with malfunctions or breakdowns.

The Data Lab also runs an international education programme for data science students, which has grown from a 40-strong cohort in its first year to 90 this year, and funding has been announced for a further 130 students.

“This year we also have almost 50 students out in industry working on real projects,” explains Docherty.

“What we hope to do is create that talent pipeline that is going out into industry and into the public sector and making a difference.”

The IC’s third pillar is community building. “We want to build a robust and vibrant data community in Scotland.

“There is a whole raft of activity that includes the data science tech meet up, which is now a community of over 2,000 data enthusiasts and Datafest, which is a week-long festival of data innovation.”

Datafest 2018 will run for a week from 19 March. The festival will include a two-day data summit with a line-up of high-calibre speakers, but for the most part, the programme is packed with “fringe” events. “That’s where we open it up to the community to run events,” says Docherty. “It’s an area where we hope to expand significantly in 2018.

“We want to get activity across the country at all levels from school pupils to ministers with workshops, academic events and industry activity.”

OIL & GAS INNOVATION CENTRE

The Aberdeen-based Oil & Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC) was created in 2014 to address two significant issues in the industry: finding relevant university expertise was proving challenging, and access to funding for new projects was complicated.

OGIC was the answer. “The basic requirement of pairing up companies with universities and funding, or providing funding, is the core of our business,” explains chief executive Ian Phillips.

For the companies that approach OGIC for support, the first stage is to sit down with Phillips and his team for a discussion about how the innovation centre might be able to help.

“Assuming that the company has some sort of tech requirement that we are pretty confident a university could help with, we will tell them there and then. That’s great from the company’s point of view because they get clarity quickly.

“If we think that OGIC can help and that a university can help, we will develop a couple-of-page description of the project with the company.

“We try to translate the industry jargon into English so that the university academics can actually understand what the project is.”

Then it’s time for the matchmaking. The project brief is sent out to what Phillips describes as a “well-polished mailing list” of researchers at Scottish universities, at which point they can register their interest and availability before meeting the business behind the idea.

There’s also the funding angle; OGIC can either point a project in the direction of funding through an organisation such as Scottish Enterprise, or fund the project themselves – something that is innovative in itself.

“When OGIC was created there was almost no history of the oil industry using government money to do R&D,” says Phillips.

“People like OGIC and, more recently, the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, have been there to encourage development and provide money to those companies.”

Projects supported by OGIC range in length and value from two months to an 18-month one worth £360,000.

“We have just signed off our 45th project and we have a pipeline of about another 60 projects,” says Phillips. “Seventy-five per cent of those projects are with small companies – less than 50 people.

“Of that, half are with micro-size companies, often one or two people, and the other quarter of our projects are with very large companies.

“The technologies that we support span just about every branch of science; we do a lot of chemistry and computational fluid dynamics and composite materials, exploring the properties of metals and a lot of computer science.

“What we have found is a niche where we are supporting early stage science and how it might be applied into the real world.”

SCOTTISH AQUACULTURE INNOVATION CENTRE

Recognising both a need and an opportunity for industry to work together more effectively with Scottish universities, the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) was created in September 2014, with the aim of connecting people and catalysing collaborations.

“It was industry demand and industry vision that brought us into being,” says Heather Jones, chief executive of SAIC.

The work of SAIC focuses around three strands: collaborative research and development (R&D) projects, skills and training and knowledge exchange.

So far, it has approved 23 projects with a value of £30 million, of which SAIC has contributed £5m and a further £19m has come from industry. All projects funded by the innovation centre require industry co-funding.

“The first project that we funded in March 2015 involves scaling up production of cleaner fish which eat sea lice on salmon ,” explains Jones. “It’s worth £4m and industry put in £3m.

“That’s a strong signal of the commercial demand for a service like ours, where we can make it easier for businesses to connect with the relevant academic expertise.”

The average project will run for two years, with an average value of £1.3m. The Scottish aquaculture industry contributes 64 per cent of the costs.

“We are trying to stimulate big solutions to big problems affecting the sector, not just here in Scotland but internationally,” says Jones.

SAIC supports a scholarship scheme for postgraduate MSc students at Dundee, Heriot-Watt, Stirling and Aberdeen universities. As part of their degree, the students complete a four-month project, working on a commercial problem or industry need to prepare them for the world of work.

“We are also trying to stimulate the number of young people who are interested in aquaculture as a career,” adds Jones.

SAIC supports Scotgrad Student Life Sciences Internships which enable young people to secure a 12-week summer placement in the industry, and works with businesses to identify training needs at all levels.

In terms of knowledge exchange, SAIC organises workshops and events which bring together people working in aquaculture in Scotland and abroad.

“You are getting a real network of learning across the community,” says Jones. “Most of the things that we are doing are focused on improving the health and welfare of the fish.

“Fish farming isn’t like chicken farming for example, in that you can’t control the local environment in the same way.

“It’s about optimising the conditions that you’re faced with as best you can.”

CONSTRUCTION SCOTLAND INNOVATION CENTRE

The Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC) officially opened a state-of-the-art £3 million Innovation Factory just outside Hamilton on 11 September, signalling the latest phase in its development.

The 35,000sq ft factory workspace will be used by companies in the construction industry to pilot innovative projects in a controlled environment.

“The Innovation Factory was born from the realisation that the construction industry’s ability to ‘do’ innovation is often restricted because piloting and prototyping – if it happens at all – usually takes place on live construction sites, with tight deadlines and clients with little appetite for risky new solutions,” explains CSIC chief executive Stephen Good. “Being able to take all the industry’s innovation activity off the critical path, into a warm, dry, safe, controlled environment where it’s OK to take risks and do things differently, and people are encouraged to fail, learn and repeat, is critical to allow the industry the room to grow its innovation culture.”

The facility consolidates CSIC’s position as a one-stop innovation support shop for construction businesses looking to futureproof themselves in a sector where technology is causing widespread disruption, but also offering exciting opportunities for growth.

On top of the physical space created by the Innovation Factory, CSIC provides free or low-cost facilities, training, insights, relationships and practical support to empower businesses to unlock commercial value through innovation.

“We’ve even got hot desking facilities, meeting and event spaces,” adds Good.

“We can help with upskilling and educating [a company’s] workforce through our calendar of continuing professional development and education seminars, or we can work with [businesses] from concept to commercialisation on any project that will contribute to Scotland’s construction industry.”

To date, CSIC has invested £1.3m in more than 80 industry-led projects, with a total value of £5.5m. These projects are vital for developing new products, processes, systems and solutions, as well as safeguarding more than 750 existing jobs, creating 230 news ones and, industry predicts, adding more than £80m to the economy.

Since it opened in 2014, CSIC’s mission has been to champion innovation and support businesses, from the smallest link in the supply chain to the largest multinational companies, to realise their growth potential.

“We exist to help Scotland’s construction industry become stronger and more competitive by unlocking the innovation within it,” says Good.

“Most companies don’t realise that in many ways they are already innovating, and if they only connected the dots a little more strategically, they could unlock exciting new opportunities and commercial value.

“We are there to connect those dots, and also to bridge any gaps between a company’s potential and reality when it comes to developing new products, refining existing processes, or collaborating to fix industry-wide issues.”

Good continues: “Our vision is to inspire and enable a step-change in how the construction industry perceives innovation. We want to stop people thinking of innovation as an ‘out there, other people do it’ concept.

“We want to help Scotland’s construction sector to become world leading, sustainable, and economically robust.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version is available here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.