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Solving the Big Issues of our Time through Innovation

Monday 22 April marked World Earth Day, a global day of environmental action aimed at raising awareness for the protection of our planet. In recognition of this important event, which is now in its 49th year, Andrew Youngson, Senior Policy Officer at the Scottish Funding Council, highlights some of the exciting innovations coming out of Scotland’s Higher Education sector that are helping to save our planet.

Climate change is the big issue of our time (crowded though that space may be) but like all big issues, the tricky part is that it’s actually made up of many other issues that need to be addressed in their own right to help make a cumulative difference. So just what can the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) do to help tackle such a big challenge? Well we can continue to work with, develop and support wonderful initiatives in our sectors that have real impacts.

Take water scarcity for example. UNICEF estimates 2.5 billion people around the world lack access to clean water. For one of life’s most basic necessities, something that most of us take completely for granted, that number is staggering.

The winner of this year’s KickStart Challenge was Waterwhelm. Founded by University of Edinburgh postdoctoral research assistant Dr Ali Abbassi Monjezi, Waterwhelm aims to commercialise innovative self-powered technology that can turn waste water into fresh water, whilst generating electricity at the same time. 

It’s a brilliant concept and we wish him every success in taking the next steps in bringing it to market. But it will take many more ideas like this if we’re to ensure everyone has fresh water, and if we are going to help deal with climate change challenges more broadly.  

Fortunately, Scotland’s institutions are full of bright and creative people but ideas on their own are rarely enough to overcome the altogether different business of securing the necessary funding and investment to take them forward, or even finding  partners with the right skillsets.

So how do we ensure this ‘pipeline’ of talent continues to flow smoothly? It’s a question we constantly ask ourselves at the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), and like all big questions there is no one answer.

Funding initiatives like the Kickstart Challenge is one way to support the entrepreneurial journey of graduate-level innovators across a range of project themes.

At the other end of the scale, established with £100m of SFC funding, Scotland’s eight industry-led Innovation Centres are working to accelerate innovation across our key economic sectors, driving jobs and growth economy in partnership with Scottish Enterprise (SE) and Highlands and Island Enterprise (HIE).

Innovation Centres bring the expertise and capabilities of Scotland’s universities, research institutes, colleges and businesses, to address industry demand led opportunities that support growth of the Scottish economy. Their aim is to support transformational opportunities for industry and work collaboratively to develop Scotland as a world-leading entrepreneurial and innovative nation.

This work involves a range of activities spanning collaborative innovation, community building, and skills and training. In its first three years, the Data Lab’s MSc Data Science programme supported 260 studentships through 17 courses delivered across 11 universities. This programme is expected to grow during the second funding phase to support 665 new data science MScs, ensuring a steady supply of talent to Scottish business.

Another example is the FUTUREquipped project. Designed around the concept of SMART homes, an area where healthcare, technology and construction fields are rapidly converging, the project involved representatives from 13 colleges and four innovation centres, including the Digital Health and Care Institute (DHI) and the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC).

The result was to introduce 27 lecturers and around 500 students from health and care, construction and engineering, and information technology into future of work in these three key sectors, resulting in new cross-disciplinary ‘micro-lessons’ that are already changing how these subjects are taught in colleges, and FUTUREquipped has also supported two research projects between businesses and colleges.

SFC also funds Interface. Based regionally throughout Scotland, Interface connects businesses with the academic expertise they need to take their bright ideas forward and helps them access a range of funding options to offset the cost of their project.

This includes the use of SFC Innovation Vouchers, to encourage new first time partnerships between SMEs and a university or further education college. A good example of this is Abertay University’s work with W&J Knox in identifying uses for their waste products to prevent valuable material from going to landfill, with the aim of saving tonnes of protein and oil salvaged from fishing nets by turning it into livestock feed for fish, pigs and chickens, instead of sending it to the landfill.

These efforts may seem small in the global context of climate change. But with innovative efforts like these and those of previous Converge Challenge winners like One Cherry and Crover, we can collectively do our bit to address it.

In funding initiatives like Converge, our hope is that in doing our bit with our partners to look after all parts of Scotland’s entrepreneurial eco-system, we can simplify the process of putting research into action, and let our best and brightest get on with taking their ideas into the world.