In three-and-a-half years since its opening – and notwithstanding a global pandemic – the Bayes Centre has proved to be a remarkable success and catalyst of economic growth.
Named for the 18th century statistician Thomas Bayes, the £45 million building on Edinburgh University’s Potterow has notched up some impressive numbers of its own.
Tech start-ups based there have raised more than £115m in investment, £38m has been secured against a range of innovation projects and there have been more than 3,000 interactions with external companies all working together at the coalface of this century’s socalled “new oil” – data.
And business has responded very positively to the clustering of expertise under the auspices of the Edinburgh-based Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative.
The Bayes Centre is one of five such hubs set up as part of the £1.3bn City Region Deal for Edinburgh and South East Scotland, signed in 2018 to elevate the city to “data capital of Europe” status.
Companies like Skyscanner, a Scottish tech “unicorn”, have located right next to the campus,
and corporates like Amazon, IBM, Microsoft have also brought employment and impact to the city as the ecosystem has steadily grown.
Michael Rovatsos, a professor of artificial intelligence at Edinburgh University, who directs the centre, says the mission is founded on the exchange of ideas between academia and wider society, to create the kind of impacts that could lead to the next big, potentially transformative digital breakthrough.
He firmly believes the Bayes Centre is helping to transform the way the university operates – from a traditional “fellowship of scholars” to an institution that can mobilise its talent and bring direct impact to the local economy and citizens.
“There is so much potential for key sectors in the region to benefit from data,” he says over a Teams call from his office.
“It can create new jobs, socioeconomic impact, enhance our citizens’ quality of life and generate positive outcomes in terms of inclusivity and sustainability – by leveraging the fact we have this very large, broad, world-leading academic institution that can essentially funnel a lot of talent and ideas into the region.
“We have all these people coming to us from around the world because of what we do as a
Rovatsos describes the phenomenon as one of “talent mobilisation”, where the centre is effectively a bridging mechanism between academia and the wider economy – often for ambitions like worldleading medical research – something which Russell Group universities are increasingly engaged in as part of efforts to appeal to the very best students in the world and give them a distinct edge as they try and nurture a spin-off into the “next big thing”.
“The way we bring those benefits is by getting people to stay here, getting them to work with local businesses and partners, and also by pivoting what we do as a university more towards the challenges those external organisations bring to us,” he adds.
“So, I think one thing that has been a great success is that we’ve brought around 50 external organisations if not to the building, certainly to the university environment, whether it’s public or private sector, the NHS or government.”
The Bayes Centre has nurtured some of those innovations, including blockchain-based financial technology (fintech) company Zumo, and telecoms network analytics company network NetAI.
PolyDigi, working at the leading edge of cybersecurity in banking and MyWay Digital Health, specialising in diabetes management, are among a growing cohort of companies to have been passed successfully through its AI Accelerator programme.
The centre also maintains the university’s investor showcase – EIE – which has supported more than 500 companies to date, raising in excess of $1.5bn investment.
FanDuel – the sports betting company that also went on to become a unicorn – is an alumnus of that process and what Rovatsos describes as a “prime example of how this has raised the bar significantly”.
Expertise from the Bayes Centre has pursued societal goals, too. Data scientists have collaborated with the city council to derive better insights into the way Edinburgh’s festivals are organised, they have worked with Lothian Buses to optimise schedules and reduce waiting times and colleagues at the health-focused Usher Institute – a DDI sister hub – have been instrumental in bringing remote monitoring technologies to patients in their homes.
The centre has also played a role in trying to shape the skills requirements of those working in
the new data economy. Rovatsos adds: “We’ve created a series of around 40 short courses for people in the workplace or those looking for employment where where they can get funding from the Scottish Funding Council to improve their data skills.
“So, it’s really making the university more accessible for people, whether they work in banking or the NHS or retail, if they want to retrain or upskill themselves fornew roles that involve some understanding of technology and data, even if it’s understood not everyone will become a tech person; but the objective is to lift everyone up to their skills and capabilities.”
If there was an area in which the Bayes Centre – and the DDI initiative more widely – could start to deliver even bigger impacts, Rovatsos says it must be in the collective ambition of the nation to raise its game on the world digital and data stage.
He speaks briefly about the Silicon Glen era of the 1970s and 1980s, when Scotland was recognised internationally for its semiconductor industry, located across the Central Belt.
Whilst the Bayes Centre – and the other hubs, some of which are onstream, such as the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University, are undeniably a shift from the past of under investment in publicly-funded research and development, the question is how to harness the potential of that collective to burnish Scotland’s credentials globally.
“The reality is that we’re a small country and we cannot pull a hundred thousand new data scientists out of a hat,” says Rovatsos. “If somebody brought me ship-loads full of them I’m sure we would find opportunities for them, but it’s very competitive and we need to look further afield than Scotland and bring people from all over the
world into the region.”
He adds: “This is especially true in technology because there are so few physical barriers. It’s moving incredibly fast and if somebody else is better on the global scene nobody is interested in the number two.
“You want the number one capability. It’s important to have inclusive access opportunities for
everybody, but then to be ambitious in who you pick and nurture
“We’re not going to have thousands of start-ups popping up every day and venture capitalists setting up shop around here to give them money. We need to focus on pushing the best ones to that next level, and helping them.”
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