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SFC’s Keith McDonald on the plan for Scottish universities to apply lessons from MIT’s innovation approach, following a recent visit to see ‘how the other half innovate’.

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This November, SFC along with Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise took 10 representatives from Scottish universities down to Massachusetts.

Before the Bee Gees get stuck in your head, I should clarify we were headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the aim of gaining some insight as to what makes it a global innovation hub.

Scotland is striving to become a world-leading entrepreneurial and innovative nation and over the past few years, SFC has been working with our enterprise agency partners to make this a reality. One focus of this work has been on increasing the number and quality of scale up businesses in Scotland.

Scotland has good levels of start-up company creation but that success isn’t replicated in the number who are ‘scaling up’, i.e. growing their business, staff, turnover and exports beyond our shores. This is a priority the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board focusses on in its new strategic plan published in October 2018.

Part of the solution to that problem lies in identifying the right skill sets, so that entrepreneurs aren’t just learning how to sell, they’re also learning how to grow their ambition.

So the point of the MIT visit was to introduce our higher education institutions (HEIs) to other ways of teaching, get them thinking about how they could enhance or develop their own programmes, and to think about how they could collaborate to achieve good outcomes for Scotland.

Over the course of three days we got really good exposure to MIT’s programmes, and the way its educators, practitioners and students interact. Our key contact there was Bill Aulet, who is Managing Director of Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Bill has a good understanding of the Scottish entrepreneurial system’s strengths and weaknesses, having led Scotland’s CAN DO Scale Summer School since its launch in 2014.

Our HEI reps were able to talk with him about how their institutions might enhance or develop their institutions’ programmes – in a Scottish context. That context is important because this trip was not about replicating MIT – an incredible institution that has its own unique story.

Going down to MassachusettsMIT is an impressive and beautiful campus, spanning a very large area along the north side of the Charles River, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was incredible to see how the current campus expanded from what was a huge building site in the early 1980s, to hosting “the most innovative square mile in the world”. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Sanofi are just a few of the many global organisations that have a presence around campus.

What jumped out at me the most was the way in which MIT balances theory and practice-led teaching. They have a good bank of ‘been there, done that’ alumni, who they call on to share their knowledge and experience with students. Secondly, because they have this wide array of people, rather than having them speak in general terms about their experience, MIT can select speakers to speak on specific entrepreneurial aspects or concepts, in language and models that students recognise.

I think the trip was a great success in stimulating the HEI reps (and us) to think differently about how Scottish universities can improve the delivery of entrepreneurial education.

I hope this thinking will be applied in ways which will enhance the way our universities do scale-up education. To this end we have made funding available to give this a boost. We have asked our universities to come to us with proposals which could take the form of pilot education programmes for scale-up businesses.

Working with universities and our enterprise partners, the plan is to use the knowledge we collectively gain from these pilots, and previous initiatives like the Scale Summer School to enhance how Scotland looks after its most ambitious entrepreneurs and help more of them make the jump from flourishing start-up to thriving companies.