Innovate or stagnate

5th July 2018

Innovate or stagnate: it’s a blunt message, however one that Scotland’s business community shouldn’t need to hear quite as often as it did 13 years ago.

So, what has changed in that time? Firstly, the Scottish Government’s Scotland CAN DO Innovation Action Plan’s priorities include encouraging more business innovation and making best use of university and college research, knowledge and talent to drive growth. Streamlining the experience for businesses from our enterprise agencies and business support services is vital to that: creating the right environment will lead to more conversations, more ideas, more solutions, more invoices and more jobs, ultimately enriching Scotland as a place to live and work.

The environment for businesses partnering with universities to develop products, processes or services, or to carry out collaborative research, is easier to navigate. From simplifying intellectual property agreements to guiding businesses in identifying relevant expertise, the wrinkles have been ironed out instilling more confidence in businesses looking to enter into academic partnerships.

In addition, the willingness of small and medium sized businesses (including micro businesses employing one or two people) to partner with academic expertise is greater now than ever before. The pain points of not having enough time or resource to find the right academic expertise or how to fund initial projects have also been eradicated with the introduction of accessible funding schemes like Innovation Vouchers and free and impartial brokerage and support services such as Interface.

Scottish universities are now more receptive to welcoming industry for co-creation of new research or indeed, into the classroom or lab for teaching purposes (previously the focus was on licensing technology or spinning out companies). They have recognised the enormous educational gains from presenting real-life business issues to students and researchers as well as meeting the demand from funders for a return on their investment in terms of economic and societal benefits, such as safeguarding and creating employment and breaking into new markets.

Thousands of business-academic projects have been established across Scotland by Interface since 2005 which have generated £64.2 million gross value added (GVA) a year for the Scottish economy, supporting around 1,060 Scottish jobs.

The long-term economic impact from these companies could increase to more than £195.3 million GVA/year, supporting almost 3,500 jobs if future expectations of businesses within the next three years are realised. 

One of these companies is Edinburgh-based snap40, an ambitious start-up which is creating employment opportunities and having a positive impact on the economy. The company has developed a wireless wearable device for monitoring patients’ health in hospitals and communities, which is currently being rolled out by several NHS trusts and US hospitals.

Whilst a medical student, snap40 co-founder Christopher McCann noticed that the existing manual systems of gathering data on vital signs meant that deteriorations in patients were not seen until long after they had started. Together with co-founder Stewart Whiting, who has a PhD in Computer Science, snap40 was born.

snap40’s simple device is worn by patients in either hospital or their home. The device’s sensors monitor vital signs including respiratory rate, oxygen saturation and movement. Dehydration is also a significant problem, so the founders wanted the armband to incorporate a low-power ultrasound sensor to monitor hydration levels. After a referral from the Digital Health & Care Institute Innovation Centre (DHI), Interface sourced expertise in University of the West of Scotland and advised on funding (a Scottish Funding Council Innovation Voucher). The collaboration with the university created proof of concept data around use of ultrasound to monitor hydration levels.

Detecting deterioration earlier will save patients’ lives. The potential cost and time savings to NHS Trusts are also obvious – snap40’s wearable armband will mean nursing staff can be freed from the manual task of collecting vital signs as automatic alerts are generated when the warning signs of deterioration begin – saving two hours in every twelve-hour shift, while length of stay and readmissions can also be reduced.  

Businesses often ask why Scotland’s world-class universities and academic talent would want to work with them – new collaborations, access to additional sources of funding, the chance to test research in a real-life setting, the opportunity for developing impactful academic papers and case studies, and the potential to continue the collaboration with the business are a few reasons.

We need many more people like Christopher, who have a clear vision, are facing a challenge, and are open to collaborating with academic partners as part of their business journey.

This article first appeared in The Times