Getting Results: Universities’ innovative partnerships with business will drive economic recovery

This week, we’ve had a series of guest blogs from Principals to mark a new report showcasing the role of Scottish universities in economic and social recovery. We’ve covered the role of education and skills development in supporting people, how university research changes lives and fuels growth, we’ve covered the way that the arts and wider university contribution can help address many of the inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated and we’ve looked at the ways that universities support regional regeneration. We finish with a blog from our Convener, Professor Sir Gerry McCormac, which looks at university support for business-focused innovation and enterprise creation and the way that this can help drive economic recovery.

Universities have a crucial role to play in bringing innovation and enterprise to the heart of a sustainable recovery.

We are sources of enterprise ourselves, with universities regularly producing the highest start-up and spin-out rates in the UK. Yet, we also have an enabling or partnership role, working alongside existing businesses and the third sector.

We are here to help those organisations find solutions to challenges, or to develop new products and processes. Since the pandemic hit, many have had to pivot quickly in response to new operating environments and customer behaviours. In this context, innovation, with universities as a partner, will continue to be a key asset in the recovery. Just looking at partnerships with SMEs, Interface, the free knowledge connection service for business, brokered 329 collaborations with academic partners in the year up to August 2020.

Based on past performance, the National Centre for Enterprise in Education (NCEE) estimates that Scotland’s universities will provide over £1.2 billion worth of support and services to small businesses, enterprises and third sector organisations on a not-for-profit basis over the next five years. This makes them a major player alongside Scotland’s enterprise agencies.

Collaborations with industry that translate into real-world impact are a big part of universities’ focus. Take for example ForthERA, from Scotland’s International Environment Centre, based at the University of Stirling. This ambitious project, part of the City Region Deal, turns the Firth of Forth into a living laboratory: sharing data with 5G; using satellite imagery, landscape sensors, artificial intelligence and dynamic modelling to predict climate changes and foresee the consequences of interventions. It is run in partnership with BT, Scottish Water and visualisation specialist 3DEO, and invites collaborations with a further range of businesses that will create jobs across the region.

Similarly, Heriot-Watt University is partnering with ASML, a manufacturer of semiconductor lithography machines, to translate fundamental physics research into new laser technologies ready for market.

In terms of universities’ own role in enterprise and entrepreneurship, the NCEE anticipates that universities will help establish over 1,000 new businesses and social enterprises over the next five years.

Current University of Stirling Management School MBA student, Jack Oswald, has evolved from being a competitive tennis player to a new venture founder. Jack competed whilst studying for a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish at Stirling, during which time he had the idea of developing a new kind of sporting bag. He benefited from the University’s Enterprise Programme and launched his company Cancha in December 2020 to a very promising start. He is a member of the current SEED accelerator cohort, and also benefits from The Sport Hive, part of the institution’s campus-based student/graduate start-up business incubator.

The University of the West of Scotland expects to launch a new spin-out this autumn, which is the result of collaboration with companies across Scotland’s salmon industry. Wellfish Diagnostics samples 30 biomarkers in fish and has reduced healthcare responsiveness from 10 days to 24 hours, with the technology holding significant export potential.

As a culture of enterprise becomes increasingly embedded in our universities, Udrafter is another great example of graduate entrepreneurship and finding opportunities in the midst of the pandemic. Created by Daryll and Luke Morrow, graduates of Robert Gordon University, this micro-internship platform provides business with fast access to affordable student freelancers, and gives students the opportunity to gain vital work experience.

Successful commercialisation of research depends on having well-supported, high quality basic research established in the first place. In many cases, this is the high-risk research that business, particularly SMEs, are unlikely to invest in, even in good times. The University Innovation Fund is relatively small in scale but has proven to be a successful mechanism for enhancing university and industry links. It’s a strong contender for increased investment.

Higher education is a powerful catalyst for growth, and we will continue to support our best and brightest in contributing to an inclusive and sustainable recovery for all.