A Highland fling

The Technology Strategy Board is a UK-wide organisation, and yet whenever I talk to businesses North of the border I am met with expressions of surprise about the extent of our involvement in Scotland’s innovation landscape. Put simply, we are currently investing in 230 projects which include one or more Scottish partners, we are engaged with every major university in Scotland and we have over 120 KTP projects involving Scotttish organisations. Notwithstanding this, a recent perception study has concluded that there is much still to be done to raise our profile.

Last week’s information briefing at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow was a good opportunity to begin addressing this profile and meet with business and public sector organisations in Scotland to understand their innovation needs. I used the opportunity of the briefing event to visit companies both in the Central belt and up in the Highlands and Islands, and I was not disappointed by what I found. There are some world-leading companies, some leading-edge technology institutes, all recognising the importance of investing for the future during these difficult times but requiring encouragement and support to provide the confidence to build international markets.

Our Monday morning visit was to the Informatics Forum at the University of Edinburgh. I was impressed with the engagement of businesses both large and small in this initiative, including BT, Selex, Cloudsoft, Wolfson and EADS Innovation works. Professor Nigel Brown, Vice-Principal, introduced us to the University of Edinburgh and stressed their science and engineering priorities around energy, environment and translational medicine but also reinforced the cross-cutting nature of informatics as an underpinning centre that went across all schools. I do respect the strength of the University pooling arrangements put in place across Scotland’s universities and the role of SISCA in ICT seems to be developing strongly. Informatics is the study of how natural and artificial systems store, process and communicate information, and the University of Edinburgh has adopted it as a discipline central to its future, strongly supported by Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government. It was interesting to see Edinburgh’s links with the Royal Bank of Scotland, and also hear of the work they are doing with Microsoft Surface, the first in Scotland to do so. The Informatics Forum clearly has the potential to give Scotland a lead in this important area.

On every regional visit I have been on I have come across a real gem of a business. Hidden amongst the roundabouts of Livingstone is a company called Wireless Fibre Systems. Formed in 2003 and led by energetic Chairman Brendan Hyland, this is a genuinely world-leading company in ‘through water’ communication and broadband. WFS has received a couple of funding awards from us for collaborative projects, and it was nice to go into a company which had just achieved a positive outcome in one of our recent competitions.  WFS should be a case study example of technology development and exploitation in Scotland, showing where our investment has made a real difference and helped to develop a world class capability.

With the sun beaming down on the Clyde it seemed a shame to come indoors for our information briefing, but at least the air-conditioning of the Armadillo centre provided welcome relief for the audience - about 160 people from a mixture of business, university and intermediary organisations.

While at the Centre I discussed with PR practitioner Jane McGirk the potential for raising our profile in Scotland. There is no shortage of good Technology Strategy Board collaborative projects here – for example, MTEM survey technology (now Petroleum Geo-Services); the University of Dundee work with textile designers; M-Squared projects on next generation bio-medical lasers; KTP with McGill Electrical; Pelamis Wave Power; CXR Biosciences stem cell research and Semefab. This variety reinforces my convictionthat one way of building confidence in investment is to showcase such successful case studies.

Glasgow was followed by a beautiful train journey north to Inverness through the Highlands. The scenery is outstanding but such a journey does reinforce the need for the Scottish Government to establish good broadband connectivity into rural areas.

It also became apparent that whilst the Scottish Government is joined-up in its approach, the needs of the Highlands and Islands are quite different to those of Scottish Enterprise - and that it is important for organisations like ours to work with both agencies to ensure all needs are being met and opportunities realised.

The technology priorities in the Highlands and Islands revolve very much around renewable energies, life sciences and the digital economy, and align well with our own priority themes. In Inverness I met with Wavegen. This firm was formed in 1990 and has been owned by German company Voith Hydro since 2005. The Wavegen system uses wave energy but is based on Oscillating Water Column Technology.  There has been some limited DTI (Technology Strategy Board) funding and a 250kW Turbine demonstration project has clocked up 6 years of operation experience. A 100kW reference turbine project was launched in July 2008 and a 4MW scheme with npower, known as the Siadar Project, was granted planning consent in January 2009. Wavegen are pursuing a number of export opportunities but consider the Siadar project as their major breakthrough. Although they are working with Government via various support mechanisms there are still significant technology challenges, particularly around manufacturability, noise and reliability, and they are keen to understand the energy funding landscape. It was an opportunity for me to give further thought to the approach to renewable energy developments in our planned programmes.

While in the region I learnt of the unique innovation challenges facing rural communities and the importance of HIE Innovation initiatives, such as Fusion. This was reinforced when I visited the new Centre for Life Science, an impressive facility opened earlier in the year, which brought together a number of centres and businesses in a brand new campus building, co-located with the local hospital. There is some impressive work going on in the fields of Diabetes and digital health at the Centre for Rural Health. Many of these developments are being brought together within the University of Highlands and Islands; the role of a university in catalysing the innovation community is something we sometimes underestimate.

I reinforce what I said consistently through my visit – the Technology Strategy Board operates UK-wide. So in Scotland, working with Scottish Government, the Enterprise Agencies and, most significantly, business is vital to us. There are some great case study examples and some real learning points for the rest of the UK. We may need the help of our partners and the companies we work with to have our story told well in Scotland, but be assured it is very much part of our landscape.


Last updated on Thursday 06 August 2009 at 09:32

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  • Vicky Brock|31/07/09 at 12:37 PM

    Hello Iain, It was great to meet you as part of you Highland fling! I was talking about your presentation this morning to a company and they reeled of 3 or 4 terrific ideas that very much fit your field of interests. I have pointed them to the competition part of your site. Thanks for making the effort to come this far North - and I hope we can figure out a way, as a region, to start sharing our wind and rain with the world ;-) Thanks, Vicky

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