It’s been a difficult year for every aspect of our society, with the wider implications of the Covid-19 pandemic acutely felt by our business community. However, it’s been inspiring to see the level of innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the past 12 months as SMEs pivoted to diversify their offerings, create businesses with purpose, and support their communities.

At The Data Lab, we believe Scotland can lead the world to a future where data powers scientific progress, economic prosperity and social good, and everything we do aims to champion the use of data and artificial intelligence (AI). From startups to large firms, we want to foster innovation and, despite the pandemic and the resulting lock-down periods, we’re pleased to have been able to support many businesses on their journey.

Our External Funding Service, which aids Scottish companies in accessing available grant funding has, to date, supported more than 65 businesses to secure £21m in data-related innovation funding. Most recently, Data Innovation. AI was granted funding through Innovate UK’s Sustainable In-novation Fund, after enlisting our services.

This enabled it to further develop its WorkSafeAI (see case study), a tool created to inform the design and construction of facilities to ensure the health and wellbeing of those using it whilst supporting the sustainable long-term use of buildings – even in the event of a future epidemic or pandemic. Their work reflects an important development in building planning, which may one day help to reduce the impact of potential lockdowns linked to future pandemics.

Through TORCH, our business advisory offering which helps business leaders build on the data foundations already established by their company, we have sup-ported 16 new projects including establishing an integrated data platform for historical real estate platform Grand Bequest, and working with Sea Spyder to develop an evidence-based pricing system for Scotch whisky.

Yet, the wider adoption of data and AI in business relies on more than a heightened awareness and understanding of its value – we need to facilitate an increase in the number of people who know how to work with it. Perhaps the most important way we can foster continued innovation in the sector is to support and create learning opportunities for students.

Despite social distancing impacting in-person lectures, we’re proud to have continued our work with Scottish universities to deliver 29 courses through The Data Lab MSc Programme. Our student cohort has been resilient in the face of this adversity, continuing their studies online, with around 160 students set to graduate later this year. Our team worked closely with recruitment agency MBN Solutions to secure 33 remote placement opportunities with a number of businesses in Scotland last summer, covering sectors including healthcare, oil and gas, and service provision, and it’s been great to see the positive feedback from companies that may now consider integrating data into their day-to-day operations.

Looking ahead to the future, these students will play an important role in the wider adoption of data and AI skills in the business community, as companies increasingly recognise their value, offering smarter, more targeted ways of working. We are carrying this legacy on, with the enrolment period for our 2021 student intake now open. Through the launch of our SME Data Intern-ship Grant, we hope to encourage and increase the number of SMEs participating in the placement programme by providing grants to support the cost of recruiting a student. To date we have received around 90 project submissions from organisations that will create valuable work experience opportunities for up to 120 students in our current cohort.

Similarly, Data Skills for Work Credits, which have now been rolled out throughout Scotland, will provide grants of up to £5,000 for SMEs to provide staff with the tools, skills and confidence to work efficiently with data, and we established an important collaboration with Equate and CodeClan to deliver Women in Data Science Training. We’ve already welcomed more than 40 women to sessions and are looking forward to delivering further training in the weeks to come.

his month, we announced the launch of DataFest21, which will take place as a hybrid, year-long festival. Designed to foster conversation and innovation, our free launch event brought together speakers Leyla Acaroglu and Sir David Spiegelhalter, and with hundreds joining our virtual audience it’s great to see the community is as engaged as ever.

This year’s theme, “#OurData”, will bring together a variety of different, thought-provoking talks, talent, and tech to explore important topics relating to our future, sustainability, and the Covid-19 recovery. We are looking forward to facilitating engaging conversations, offering the wider data and AI community the chance to hear and learn from our expert speakers throughout the year.

Perhaps one of the most important pieces of work we’ve undertaken in the past year has been to help develop the AI Strategy for Scotland. Unveiled earlier this month, we are excited to continue supporting the Scottish Government in driving this new strategy as we strive to make Scotland a leading global centre of excellence in the development and use of trustworthy, ethical and inclusive AI.