Drop the tribalism to help innovation grow

by Dr Claudia Cavalluzzo

First published in The Times (Scotland) on 20 November 2023

PHRASES like “Team Scotland” have become clichés and political footballs – but there’s no room for tribalism when it comes to supporting our nation’s business founders. Whether they call themselves entrepreneurs or innovators or creatives, these are the people who come up with the ideas that help to grow our economy and fund our public services, delivering an impact for both people and the planet.

A lack of stable, long-term funding from both the public and private sectors is one of the root causes of the current fragmentation in our innovation ecosystem. While it’s vital that taxpayers’ and shareholders’ cash is spent wisely, at the moment the balance lies in the wrong place.

The constant need – whether perceived or real – by organisations for validation to get funding is stunting our ecosystem’s growth. It means that the bodies set up to support company founders are constantly chasing their tails, filling-in application forms for funding year-after-year, instead of focusing on the innovators who need their support.

Giving that support is why most of us joined the ecosystem in the first place. There’s a magic moment that happens when someone asks, “What if?” What if people stopped dying from fungal infections? What if industrial byproducts were seen as resources, not waste? What if someone’s dream could become reality?

You can see someone’s eyes light up when they indulge in that “What if?” moment. It’s seeing that passion, that energy, that creativity which drives me to help university staff, students, and graduates to start their own businesses and social enterprises.

The same short-termism is reflected more widely in academia. I’ve known dozens of post-doctoral scientists over the years who have flitted from one postdoc contract to the next – 18 months here, two years there – which has left them distracted by the process of hunting for employment rather than focusing on their science.

Stable funding is part of the solution, but it also requires all of us who support innovators to roll-up our sleeves and sign-up to genuine collaboration. For many of us, that already happens at an operational level, but we also need to put our egos and pride aside so that we are articulating the same narrative through collaboration.

Collaboration and funding also go hand-in-hand. Taxpayers’ money is already being made to go further by organisations working together. Once we’re all also sharing the same narrative, we’ll then be able to promote the successes of the innovators who we support, helping them to attract investors, customers, and workers on a global scale.

Only by embracing collaboration and ensuring a stable funding regime will the ecosystem be able to focus finally on supporting our innovators. Then we truly will be “Team Scotland”.

Dr Claudia Cavalluzzo is the executive director of Converge, which helps university staff, students, and graduates start businesses.