Commercialisation: From Blue Sky to Real World
The primary purpose of SICSA is to strengthen Scotland's research capabilities and encourage the informatics community to collaborate more, but commercialisation is becoming increasingly important…
Article by Peter Barr
The primary purpose of SICSA is to strengthen Scotland's research capabilities and encourage the informatics community to collaborate more, but commercialisation is becoming increasingly important – to make best use of Scotland’s intellectual assets to develop the economy.
According to SICSA’s Business Development Executive, Alan Settery, there needs to be a culture change in the researchers' approach to commercialisation, as well as greater emphasis on teamwork. “Blue sky thinking” can lead to significant breakthroughs, says Settery, but the pressure is growing to deliver concrete economic benefits and marketable products.
One of Settery’s jobs is to help informatics innovators in Scotland engage with home-grown SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises), as well as build bridges with large corporations. The multinationals are not just on the look-out for talent and products but also want to talk about the skills sets they believe the industry will need in years ahead, so universities can plan their future courses and equip graduates accordingly. Some of these companies have a long “shopping list” when they arrive for discussions with SICSA, or are looking for specific skills. For example, if they plan to build a new data centre in Scotland, they will be looking for graduates with the appropriate training – students “prepared for the real world,” as Settery puts it.
Settery describes his primary aims as marketing, branding and public relations, to raise awareness of SICSA, as well as promotion of knowledge exchange – including commercialisation – “to the benefit of science and society.” This involves focusing on what he calls “capability mapping,” gathering data on what research is going on in Scotland and the skill sets available, trawling the country for talent then providing a national showcase. In Settery’s opinion, research today is driven by “market demand problem solving,” and even though SICSA is built around four major themes, there is lots of research going on in other areas. Settery’s job is therefore to help to identify interesting projects across the whole spectrum of research, linking knowledge transfer right across Scotland.
When it comes to commercialisation of Scotland’s informatics research, SICSA doesn’t seek to duplicate what other existing knowledge transfer programmes are doing but complement them – and add momentum. According to Settery, it’s also important to recognise that “one solution does not fit all” universities or individual researchers. The University of Edinburgh (UoE) has the largest informatics department in Europe, and Settery says that his aim is to “dovetail into existing knowledge transfer programmes” such as ProspeKT, a partnership between UoE and Scottish Enterprise, as well as into other programmes across Scottish universities such as Converge at Heriot-Watt and the University of Glasgow’s Innovation Network.
SICSA seeks to embed itself in all informatics activities happening in Scotland and works very closely with other organisations “to inspire students to take a more entrepreneurial approach,” to commercialise research and found new companies. This activity is strongly supported by Informatics Ventures, another UoE programme, which was set up in 2008 to nurture a profitable Scottish technology cluster and “increase the economic impact of Scotland’s formidable base of research and innovation.” About a quarter of all SICSA events revolve around knowledge exchange, and most of these focus on entrepreneurship, says Settery, welcoming PhD students from all institutions. These events expose the students to commercial activities, bringing in industry experts to encourage best practice and teach people how to pitch for funding, venture capital and angel investors. A support strategy called “engage, invest and exploit” encourages early start-up and spin-out businesses that need further funding and want to move on from the academic environment to become SMEs. SICSA also organises workshops, meet-ups and industry forums to encourage academics and business to network and learn from each other.
“We must be synergistic, enhance existing knowledge transfer programmes, promote the breadth of the research base and launch new initiatives,” Settery says. Ultimately, all the research pools in Scotland will start to engage with each other much more: “Knowledge transfer across multiple disciplines is not yet pooled across Scotland, but convergence will happen as more research teams get established – for example, linking informatics, physics and life sciences.”