Dr Rebekah Widdowfield: Scotland – A nation of inventors

Rebekah Widdowfield
Rebekah Widdowfield

Further to the announcement that ‘RSE Enterprise Fellowship Scheme added £77m to the Scottish economy‘, Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, Chief Executive of Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) explains the RSE’s place in the Scottish entrepreneurial landscape.

From the television and telephone, to penicillin and animal cloning, Scotland has a long history of innovation. In recent years, we’ve been dubbed the Silicon Glen and become a hub for technology start-ups. Our nation has a history of producing more than its share of entrepreneurial value.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE)’s Enterprise Fellowship programme was created over 20 years ago to guarantee that our inventors of tomorrow are supported and can continue to grow their ideas into promising businesses.  The Fellowship works with several universities and funders across the UK – including Scottish Enterprise and a number of research councils – to provide support for entrepreneurs with science and technology propositions. 

The programme offers a tailored package of support: Enterprise Fellows are hosted by an academic institution for one year and receive a salary, bespoke training, business funding, travel funds and access to mentors, business advisors and investors. 

The impact of the programme is impressive and highly encouraging. An evaluation and economic impact assessment carried out by Biggar Economics for the RSE found that, since its inception, the programme has added almost £170 million to annual global GVA, £77 million of which was generated in Scotland.  

The programme has led to the creation of around 200 new businesses, and more than 3,000 jobs, of which nearly half (1,395) are in Scotland. For every £1 it received in funding, the Fellowship programme generated almost £6 for the Scottish economy, and £10 for the UK economy.

Given a total of £13.6 million has been invested in the programme since it was established in 1997, the results clearly demonstrate a significant return for public money. 

The Fellowship is also helping to promote a culture of entrepreneurship, with 93% of Enterprise Fellows starting at least one business. On average, only about 45% of spin-outs and technology start-ups survive to their fifth year. However, 81% of Fellows’ businesses are still operating after five years or have been sold and are operating under another owner. 

It’s not just economic benefits being delivered by these Fellowships. Our entrepreneurs are developing ideas which will improve the quality of lives, from harnessing green tidal energy technologies and new safety systems for the oil and gas industry to insect repellents and sight-saving treatments for inflammatory diseases of the eye and the gut.

Most of our Enterprise Fellows have said they participated in the programme because they had an idea, but they needed help to commercialise it. Many stated that their businesses would not exist without the Fellowship, as they would not have been able to make the step from academia to commercial success without the support provided. 

Neil Gibbs took part in the Enterprise Fellowship from 2012-13 and established his business Curapel in 2014 as a skin healthcare company. Three years later, Curapel launched Pellamex, a food supplement for eczema-prone skin and the company currently has two further products undergoing development and dermatological testing. Neil has recently signed a multi-million-pound deal to expand into Europe and credits the Fellowship for initial investment, support setting the business up, making crucial contacts and developing the ability and confidence to talk to those contacts in a business-like way.

Our aim is to grow and develop the Enterprise Fellowship programme as a key driver of innovation, productivity and economic growth.The RSE Enterprise Fellowship supports the aspiration of the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy to be the world’s most innovative economy, and also CAN DO: Scotland’s vision to become a world-leading entrepreneurial and innovative society.

The report also provides significant evidence of the vital role of research and development, demonstrating the possibility of turning ideas into strong commercial products. 

The Enterprise Fellowship is commercialising discoveries that deliver benefits to society and is supporting the birth of high-tech businesses which have the potential to change the world.  These Enterprise Fellows are the next generation of Watts and Flemings – past fellows of the RSE – and it’s vital we continue to support them.

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