Case study: Dr Fiona Riddoch

Dr Fiona Riddoch is Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Edinburgh (UoE) and Edinburgh Innovations (EI). She is an independent consultant on energy, having worked in energy policy, manufacturing industry and high-tech start-ups. Fiona was awarded the residency in 2018.

What was your career path?

I did a PhD in photovoltaics and a postdoc on heat recovery in buildings, so energy has always been of interest to me. I have spent most of my career in industry. Working with the American manufacturing company Honeywell introduced me to the application of science. I then moved into small high-tech start-up companies in consumer goods.

The move to decarbonise the energy sector started around the 2000s and I became interested in moving back into energy. I led an industry association in Brussels working on energy policy with the European Parliament, Commission, and member states for nine years, understanding the political context of energy as an industry. From there, I developed a set of contacts which I now use as an independent consultant on energy.

What attracted you to the Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR) scheme?

The EiR scheme provides a fantastic opportunity to work with bright people doing great things, and collectively to understand how to take their research into the world.

Working in industry, I saw the leap needed to turn an idea into a product. This raised my interest in how innovation becomes something manufactured in bulk. To be funded to spend time looking at this unresolved challenge, alongside my other work, was great!

What are you enjoying about the residency?

It’s a great pleasure to work with innovative researchers. UoE already has a well-developed entrepreneurial process for students and staff and it’s fantastic to link into that and mentor staff.

There are two EiRs at UoE, myself and Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, and it’s good to have someone to compete and compare with. Lucinda is more directly entrepreneurial, so we are well positioned to understand the UoE’s thinking around the application of science. 

What project are you developing as EiR?

I am developing the Energy@Edinburgh (E@E) project, involving an “Energy Platform” and “Accelerated Market Entry” initiative. E@E aims to improve awareness of other researchers’ work, promote interdisciplinary exchange, grow staff understanding of the energy market and its opportunities, and encourage innovation and translation of research.

The platform will allow UoE to present one face to industry. Meanwhile, I am working with the energy storage research group, running activities in parallel to shorten the path to commercialisation. So we’re not looking for shortcuts but wormholes! This will inform a new model for commercialisation for other research groups.

What was the motivation behind the project?

Energy research is an area of particular strength at UoE with some 300 academics focusing on this challenge, from engineers to social scientists. Within universities, however, many contacts go one-to-one on reputation and creating connections with academics who could support your research is difficult. 

Today’s academics are under high pressure from teaching and research, onerous applications and limited funds. Time to network is missing, yet grant-making bodies are now asking for more industry-aware, interdisciplinary applications. E@E will allow people to uncover the resources available across UoE and will meet a lot of needs – both of industry and government funding.

Six months in, how is the project going?

The project is progressing well. EI is coordinating on energy topics across all UoE schools in order to respond to approaches by external companies. Academics are now actively engaged in developing the platform, collating information on a website.

It has taken a little while to adjust to the culture. Universities are very differently structured to industry organisations, being very big and loosely connected, but they are great people to work with and places to work. It is a different world as lots of academics have gone through an academic line with little exposure to processes behind commercialisation. We knew this wouldn’t be easy otherwise it would have happened already, but so far no unanticipated challenges have come up.

How did you apply to the scheme?

As an independent consultant, I had previously worked with EI to take specific technologies to market, and consulted on wind turbine technology for academics at UoE.

UoE pointed out that the fund had become available. I wrote the proposal independently, except for the commitments the University has to make, and edited it in conjunction with EI. The application was remarkably straightforward and took a relatively short period of time.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

For the Energy Platform, I would be happy if any company can go to UoE, make a call or look at a website, and immediately understand what energy research is happening, identify the individual, and be taken care of. 

For the Accelerated Market Entry, if we can get to a good funding point with one of the academics and show that we have accelerated the path taking the technology forward - that would be success.