Scots at the heart of innovation

Ultrasound was the inspiration for the technology behind Optos plc, which was bought by Nikon in 2015

Healthcare and renewable energy are just two sectors in which Scottish creativity is flourishing

by Graham Lironi

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It has been said that Scots invented the modern world, and a quick glance at the roll call of famous Scottish inventors – from James Watt’s steam engine, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, John Logie Baird’s television to Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and insulin – seem to bolster that claim.

But to these famous names can be added many less well known Scottish inventors and innovators who have helped drive forward entrepreneurship and innovation around the globe.

It is worth shining a light on the past, present and future of Scottish innovators and innovations in two sectors – healthcare and renewable energy – which illustrate that our heritage of invention and entrepreneurship continues to be an integral aspect of Scotland’s national, and international, narrative.


The past

Glasgow has a celebrated history as the birthplace of some pioneering advances in the field of modern medicine. This year marks the anniversary of a watershed moment in world medicine that involved a former student of Glasgow University who performed the first Caesarean section under modern antiseptic conditions.

The procedure was carried out in 1888 on Catherine Colquhoun at the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital by Obstetric Physician Murdoch Cameron, the first physician to conduct the first organized application of the obstetric operation.

Cameron studied medicine at the University of Glasgow and, as an undergraduate, worked as a surgical dresser to Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He helped transform the Caesarean section from a dreaded and deadly procedure into the routine and relatively safe operation it is today.

And it was a Scottish physician, Ian Donald, who pioneered the use of diagnostic ultrasound in medicine in the 1950s, having seen it used in the Glasgow shipyards to search for flaws in metallurgy.

The present

One of Scotland’s present-day leading innovators also had his origins in ultrasound. Dr Douglas Anderson had a background in CT scanners and ultrasound product development, but when his son suffered a retinal detachment aged five it was his quest to develop a fast, non-intrusive whole retina scanner which led to the foundation of Optos plc.

In 2015 Optos had developed a device that was 66% more effective at identifying problems than traditional methods and had some 6,500 systems in 60 countries. The company was bought by Nikon that year for $482m.

Today, Scotland is one of the largest Life Sciences clusters in Europe, employing over 37,000 people across 700 organizations. Companies in the sector contribute more than $5.73bn turnover and about $1.36bn gross value added to the Scottish economy.

The future

Scotland’s life sciences community is founded on a proud scientific heritage of trusted networks that have always welcomed new people and their ideas. It has a shared ambition to grasp new opportunities and help businesses realize opportunities faster while scaling their innovation sustainably.

The Life Sciences Strategy for Scotland: 2025 Vision is to make Scotland the location of choice for life sciences businesses, researchers, healthcare professionals and investors while increasing the sector’s contribution to Scotland’s economic growth.

The mission is to increase the life sciences’ industry contribution to the Scottish economy to $10.9 billion by 2025.

Renewable Energy

The past

2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the Hydro Electric Development (Scotland) Act of 1943. This Act nationalized the development of hydro-electric power across Scotland to realize an ambitious social vision; to deliver power and social improvement to the Highlands.

Fort Augustus Abbey, built in 1891, was the home of the first ever public hydro-electric supply in Scotland – and legend has it that when the monks played their electric organ, the lights in the village went dim.

Hydro development brought employment to the north of Scotland in the post-war years. At its peak, more than 12,000 people were employed in its construction. The Hydro Boys, as they were known, provided Scotland with a world class renewable energy resource.

By the time major hydro development ended in the mid-1960s, Scotland could boast of 56 dams connected by nearly 400 miles of rock tunnel, aqueducts and pipelines. By 1964, over 90% of the North of Scotland was now ‘on grid’, up from about 40% in 1944.

It would take more than 40 years for another large conventional hydro station to be built in Scotland. SSE, which now operates the vast majority of the schemes built during the time of the Hydro Board, commissioned the 100MW Glendoe scheme in 2009. It is situated less than a mile from the Fort Augustus Abbey where it all started.

The present

With more renewable and distributed energy sources coming on stream, utility companies are having to find smart ways to integrate that power into existing grid systems. Faced with the huge expense and inconvenience of extending and upgrading existing interconnectors, many are turning to innovative software to cut both costs and connection times.

One answer is Glasgow-based Smarter Grid Solutions’ (SGS) Active Network Management system and its managed grid connections. Instead of building new infrastructure, Smart Grid technology allows operators to make the grid more efficient and productive, allowing renewable energy to be used to its full advantage.

Such innovation has helped Scotland become a world leader in sourcing its electricity from renewables, after a record year in 2017 for creating ecofriendly energy. The nation sourced more than two-thirds of its electricity from green schemes last year – an increase of 26% on the year before.

Scottish Government officials said it was 45 percentage points higher than the equivalent figure for the rest of the UK. Wind generation increased by 34% and hydro by 9% last year.

These latest statistics make Scotland one of the world’s top countries for providing its own electricity by sources avoiding fossil fuels.

The future

Scotland’s stated aim is for renewable sources to generate the equivalent of 100% of its gross annual electricity consumption by 2020 and for renewables sources to provide the equivalent of 11% of Scotland’s heat demand by 2020.

As Innovation Minister Paul Wheelhouse said: “Scotland is a nation of innovators. Our rich heritage is well known globally, influencing the world and the ways in which we live and work.

“Indeed, US author Arthur Herman penned a study of ‘How the Scots Invented the Modern World’. Today, innovation drives competitiveness, enables growth, creates jobs and secures Scotland’s future as a progressive nation built on dynamism, creativity and the fabulous warmth of its people.”

Scotland has a rich innovative history, an innovative present and has ambitious aspirations for an innovative future. As our pioneers have proved, generation after generation, the time for generating innovation in Scotland is now.

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