Collaboration is key to simplifying Scotland’s crowded innovation ecosystem

By Polly Purvis, Chair of Converge

First published in The Herald 7 December 2023

Wind the clock back to the 1980s when I started working for the Scottish Development Agency – the forerunner of Scottish Enterprise – and Scotland was a very different place. Our economy was dominated by a handful of major industries such as coal and steel, and policy makers were desperate to diversify.

Fast forward to today and we’re clocking up the miles on our technology and energy journey. Oil and gas companies are diversifying into renewables, a wide range of small and medium sized businesses are engaged in sectors from advanced manufacturing to tourism, and there’s a plethora of start-ups covering everything from digital technology through to life sciences.

Attitudes are changing too. Now, few young people would be scared to go home and tell their parents that they want to start their own business. Back in the day, the emphasis was very much on getting a “proper job”. Instead, more and more young people are finding the courage and, importantly, the necessary support structures to make a foray into the world of entrepreneurship and it’s also encouraging to see that some of the stigma around business failure is beginning to disappear. 

Indeed, change is happening. A number of expert reports have been published by the Scottish Government, including the national innovation strategy, the entrepreneurial campus blueprint, and Ana Stewart and Mark Logan’s Pathways report which contains recommendations on how to help innovators from all genders and backgrounds start and grow businesses. 

At Converge, we welcome these reports and the building blocks they give us to grow Scotland’s start-up ecosystem. What we need now is the glue.

If you set out today to start a business then the ecosystem can be confusing and overwhelming. Where do I go for advice? How do I get funding? Which service is best for me? 

As Scotland’s national springboard for university founders, Converge works closely with all of Scotland’s  universities to uncover emerging spinouts and start-ups – acting as a catalyst to accelerate the creation of innovative products and services that will improve lives and safeguard the planet. 

But we don’t do it alone. Converge is part of a much wider innovation ecosystem in Scotland, including universities, business organisations, economic development agencies and prestigious competitions such as Scottish Edge. 

The next step on our journey, as a nation, needs to be better collaboration among all the agencies and outlets that provide advice to budding business founders. That collaboration will lead to cohesion, and supply the glue we need to stick those building blocks together.

I’m not pretending that’s an easy task. As an ecosystem, we’ve been shouting about the need for more “collaboration” for decades – it’s a crucial step in getting us all closer to our shared vision of a more innovative, inclusive, and successful Scotland. 

Yet now is the time to move from words to actions. Government and private sector budgets are under pressure at both local and national levels, filtering through to universities, enterprise agencies, and other public bodies being asked to do more and more with less and less.

Collaboration between organisations should make the money that we do have available, go further. Now is the time to be getting more bang for our taxpayers’ buck. 

The entrepreneurial support landscape is very crowded, and so collaboration will help to make it clearer to people where they need to go for support when they have good ideas for businesses. Making the right connections is essential – as are the relationships that carry through well into a business’s later stage of development.   

Better alignment between organisations will also help to feed the right companies through to growth programmes, such as the Techscaler network. As advisors and supporters, we need to put our egos aside, so the spotlight shines on the founders and their businesses.

By focusing on the glue – on the cohesion, on the collaboration – we can also begin tackling many of the inequalities highlighted in those reports that form the building blocks for growth. Creating clearer ways to get advice will make it easier to meet many of the recommendations in the Pathways report to help more people to realise the commercial potential of their innovative ideas.

Clearer routes to getting expert advice will also help under-represented groups to join the business start-up ecosystem. Inclusion sits at the heart of our mission at Converge and that’s why earlier this year we pledged to make our programme of support even more inclusive and diverse than ever before- because everyone deserves the opportunity to make an impact . 

Making the ecosystem more inclusive will also provide true diversity of thought. When you have staff, managers and directors who come from different backgrounds then you will get a broader range of ideas for solving problems. Importantly, a more inclusive system also presents an enormous opportunity for Scotland whereby we can reap the economic and social benefits brought by greater and more widespread participation in entrepreneurship.

We’re not short of problems to solve, from the need to harness renewable energy and tackle the climate emergency through to assisted healthcare to help our ageing population. That’s why now is the time to pull our sleeves up, sharpen the focus on our key challenges and come together to achieve our nation’s ambition.

Polly Purvis is the incoming chair of Converge, Scotland’s springboard for university founders, helping staff, students and recent graduates of all Scottish Universities and Research Institutes to turn their ideas, creativity and research into sustainable businesses.