In the 17th and 18th centuries, academics at the University of Edinburgh helped drive the Industrial Revolution. Today, they are connecting with businesses to tackle the climate emergency. Words by Miles Costello.

Read this article to understand:

  • The history and purpose of the Edinburgh Earth Initiative
  • The role of academia in addressing the climate crisis
  • Why climate solutions need to consider the human impact

Academics can behave like economists. Lock five of them in a room for a day and they’ll emerge at the end of it brandishing a dozen answers to six different questions, along with several livid bruises and a couple of lame jokes.

A new collection of the planet’s brightest minds has started to work with the latest wave of start-ups and small businesses

But take their intellectual flair and combine it with an entrepreneur’s single-minded dedication, then channel it all into a determination to come up with real-world responses to climate change, and something a bit special can happen.

Quietly, in some of the world’s most prestigious universities, academia is mobilising. And it is doing so in ways we have never seen before. For decades, the institutions of Oxford and Cambridge have created, and spun-out, companies built on their proprietary research, famously around biotechnology, diagnostics and drug discovery.

Now, a new collection of the planet’s brightest minds has started to work with the latest wave of start-ups and small businesses with the aim of creating the next generation of industry leaders. This time, however, academic collaboration, international partnerships and the dedicated pursuit of profits built on sustainability are at the heart of what they do.

Capital connections

At the vanguard of this profound shift in emphasis is the University of Edinburgh, and specifically its Edinburgh Earth Initiative (EEI). Created in 2021, the EEI is designed to be the fulcrum around which the university co-ordinates its responses to the climate emergency.1 As well as forging interdisciplinary academic co-operation with other institutions, including overseas, it connects exciting entrepreneurs with some of the world’s top researchers to help their ideas flourish.

Through a university programme known as the AI Accelerator, it also acts as a business incubator, providing financial and administrative support to start-ups that use artificial intelligence for wider social benefit, including environmental stewardship. And, crucially, it introduces fledgling businesses to the network of local and international investors it is plugged into – from seed funders and venture capitalists through to the blue-chip institutional investors the Scottish capital is famous for.

The inaugural director of the EEI is Jamie Cross, a social and economic anthropologist who also works as a professor at the university. The core team of eight or so people around him includes Patrick Kilduff, head of enterprise and innovation, although as a unit the group has privileged access to the 14,500 staff, researchers, academics and professional services employees who work in and around the university.

Cross and Kilduff sat down to talk to AIQ at a busy time for the EEI. The deadline for applications to join the Accelerator programme, now passed, was then fast looming, with preparations underway for the next cohort to start work in September. Generally, between 15 and 18 companies join the programme each year.

Members of the team were also heavily involved in a recently completed report mapping out the climate technology sector in Scotland, for investors as well as companies.2 Commissioned by Scottish Enterprise, the country’s national economic development agency, the findings profile a flourishing sector, particularly in renewables, but one that is fragmented and dominated by larger players, where data-gathering can be problematic.

A complex history

On the day of our interview, Cross was preparing that evening to be part of a group hosting the UK’s Environmental Funders Network, consisting of between 120 and 130 funds and foundations that provide financial support to those working on the environment and sustainability here and overseas.

When he speaks, he immediately addresses what some might see as the discomforting history around him. It was, after all, a Scottish inventor, James Watt, whose steam engine made a mammoth contribution to the Industrial Revolution, which was also propelled forwards by the university’s academics, who arguably played a part in creating the climate emergency the world is now in.

There are few universities around the world that can lay as much claim to having a historic involvement with climate change

“There are few universities around the world that can lay as much claim to having a historic involvement with climate change. At the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, scholars and scientists at this university helped develop new inventions, patents and designs that accelerated the Industrial Revolution and the birth of steam. As we know today, that is at the heart of the historic global emissions we are responding to and seeking to address,” explains Cross.

“On the flip side, we have an incredible concentration of climate scientists, people who have co-authored or led the development of chapters in key IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports. And the university is an engine of innovation in material science and engineering, social science and policy that really seeks to respond to the challenges of mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions and adapting to climate change.”

From rivals to partners

It doesn’t feel like the moment for hand wringing, and Cross doesn’t dwell. “There are many challenges in how we describe the role of higher education institutions in relation to the current crisis. One of them is around leadership. A lot of universities like to talk about themselves as leaders, but what we need right now is collaboration, partnership and co-working,” he says.

From an academic perspective, Cross highlights Edinburgh’s work with other universities, including Glasgow, which historically has been an arch-rival in attracting students and funding. He also points to a funding deal between Edinburgh and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa that has facilitated collaboration on research projects, including a forthcoming one around heat.

“We’ve just worked with two academics to develop a new research initiative focused on work in a warming world, looking across southern Africa at what would be the impact of rising temperatures on people working in the informal economy – labourers, agricultural labourers, as well as workers in cities and towns,” he says.

We’re working to build out more sustainable partnerships with universities in the Global South

Part of those partnerships and collaborations is entrepreneurial. Commerce – not so obviously associated with the world’s universities – rapidly pushes its nose through the door.

“We’re working to build out more sustainable partnerships with universities in the Global South; understand what’s important to them, what kinds of opportunities they think they can get out of the university, but also listening to their agendas. The University of the Witwatersrand, for example, is clear about its commitment to expand its own entrepreneurial ecosystem and looking to the University of Edinburgh to help it do that,” Cross says.

He also references a series of scholarships that, thanks to philanthropic donations, Edinburgh has been able to develop for students from Nigeria who are climate-related entrepreneurs. Students from the University of Ibadan will spend time at the university during the second half of this year.

Money trail

There’s that word again: entrepreneurs. What seems to be different in this new environment is that talk of money, profits and business acumen is no longer conducted in an embarrassed whisper. 

Cross is upfront about where the EEI gets its money from, essentially through a network of grants, fellowships and philanthropic gifts, as well as central funding from the university, all published in the annual report. While its income during the 2021-22 financial year was relatively modest, at £537,500, it aims to secure an additional £10 million annually through further research grants, partnerships and philanthropy over the next decade, including at least £200,000 of external funding for the climate component of the AI Accelerator.

“It’s important to be upfront and clear about where the money comes from. There is a lot of scrutiny of investments into universities, particularly when it comes to oil and gas companies,” Cross says.

We continue to have important collaborations with oil and gas companies as researchers

“The University of Cambridge has seen an internal debate about the relationship between oil and gas funding and research. And, although many universities across the UK, including Edinburgh, have made a formal divestment of their investment funding from oil and gas companies, we continue to have important collaborations with [them] as researchers. Those engagements allow academics to support decarbonisation initiatives inside oil and gas companies.”

There are obvious echoes here of the debate among asset owners about whether to ditch their holdings in polluting businesses or stay invested to keep up the pressure on companies to pursue sustainable change.

“If, for example, Shell is a massive investor in renewables, then trying to champion that work on the inside and support that activity is important. There are lots of academics who would argue for proactive engagement; others feel those relationships become potentially politically damaging or obstructive and help to support a part of the economy that needs to be dismantled,” Cross says.

“My view is that it’s important universities have mechanisms to transparently account for their relationships so that people are as informed as possible about the nature of those relationships.”

Ideas and innovation

Whether funded externally or otherwise, the EEI is also about putting research into action, channelling it into start-up projects – and those that need no convincing about pursuing a sustainable agenda – as well as working with big businesses.

This is where Kilduff comes in. As head of enterprise and innovation, he is effectively the EEI’s chief liaison for its work with the AI Accelerator, though he also brings in other businesses for showcases, conferences and other events.

“The AI Accelerator is an exciting opportunity to bring together two of the most all-encompassing areas of society: the explosion of artificial intelligence and data services, and climate change,” Kilduff says. “Over the past three to five years, they’ve exponentially increased in importance and use.

The AI Accelerator is an exciting opportunity to bring together two of the most all-encompassing areas of society: the explosion of AI and data services, and climate change

“It’s a globally open programme, which allows people to join the university, get paid to focus on their business and expand their horizons, but also engage with the academic expertise and infrastructure at the university,” he says.

“Sustainability and climate” is one of three focuses, or cohorts, of the accelerator – the others being AI for Good and AI for Health. Each successful entrant to the programme, which receives funding under the Scottish Government’s City Region growth deal, is given a “stipend” of £9,000 covering the six-month period before they “graduate”.

They also receive administrative support, desk space and get to go to workshops and seminars. The programme helps co-ordinate their work with university researchers and introduces them to prospective investors. While the university offers support to its graduates for two years, the Accelerator aims to stay in touch with its alumni in perpetuity.

“They don’t have to be revenue generating, but they must be beyond the idea stage and usually have a prototype they can build on. So relatively more mature than the idea stage but not at the point where they’re seeking series A or B investments,” says Kilduff.

From start-up to real world impact

So, who is in the current cohort? Well, there’s Danu Robotics, which has developed an automated waste-sorting system that separates out contaminated rubbish at recycling sites currently using manual labour. Or there’s Beringar, with its intelligent sensors and AI-based dashboards that help monitor and manage energy efficiency in buildings.

And what about Vahanomy, which has come up with an AI-based data tool to detect the most efficient and profitable places to locate electric-vehicle charging points. Or Easy Rice, a Thai company digitising the process of assessing rice quality; or perhaps REOptimize Systems, a business based in Edinburgh that has developed a tool to maximise the efficiency of wind farms.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking these businesses consist of a couple of green-minded tech geeks

Don’t make the mistake of thinking these businesses consist of a couple of green-minded tech geeks working on laptops in their bedrooms, though. REOptimize Systems has already worked on a pilot project with German multinational Siemens and achieved success with operational turbines; Vahanomy recently won funding from Scottish Enterprise and Transport Scotland to produce work on locating charging points for the country’s electric buses.

Start-ups in the current cohort will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of previous participants that have successfully struck out on their own. They include MiAlgae, which recycles by-products created during whisky distilling to create an eco-friendly Omega-3 that offers an alternative to wild-caught fish. There is also Carbogenics, which processes difficult-to-recycle waste, including coffee cups, into sustainable carbon products that can be used as adsorbents and chemical catalysts in industry and agriculture.

“They’ve gone from having early-stage research or being the interests of students and/or staff and have now grown into large companies doing really important things,” Kilduff says.

“Obviously, I would say Edinburgh has something special here. There are a variety of approaches Oxford, Cambridge and others have to their accelerators. We try to maximise the openness of our ecosystem and build a community. Our stipend isn’t given for a return on equity; it’s to help the companies grow and connect them with investors,” Kilduff adds.

Skin in the game

There is an additional layer here, in that the university has its own in-house venture fund, Old College Capital, which takes stakes in start-ups, backing MiAlgae, for example.

“It's never the lead investor, but co-invests regularly in companies emerging from the Edinburgh ecosystem,” Kilduff says.

“We don’t want to claim ownership or run an unfair competition; it’s part of the unique selling point that the entrepreneur can work with the investor that’s right for them.

“What’s in it for us is that the university has placed tackling the climate crisis as one of its top three key strategic priorities. It helps us develop and start creating that novel community of people doing something different in the world, which is seeing climate and climate entrepreneurship not as a tax or a burden on business but as an economic opportunity.”

There are three burgeoning areas of interest for the start-ups wanting to join the accelerator programme

Kilduff says there are three burgeoning areas of interest for the start-ups wanting to join the accelerator programme: energy, food and finance. This chimes with the university’s particular areas of academic excellence.

“Energy and synthetic biology are two core areas of strength for the university, as well as carbon capture and storage and agriculture and food systems. They are underpinned by the expertise in data and data science and infrastructure we have,” he says. “Two out of three of those areas are high-strength areas for Scotland generally – renewable energy and finance.”

While Kilduff emphasises how keen the university is to foster young enterprises, including those established by its own students, he adds it is regularly approached by large, established businesses wanting to draw on its knowledge.

“Businesses, especially scale businesses, come to the university and want to try to unlock the research expertise we have and use it to help inform their business decisions. That can be utilities, banks, manufacturing companies – there’s a real mix, from domestic energy suppliers to international manufacturers of hardware and software,” he says.

Cross talks about a big energy player that recently asked the university for researchers to help it understand customer inertia. The company was keen to roll out more sustainable products and packages but failing to gain take-up among consumers.

Democratising academia

Which, of course, bring us back to the core attraction of any university – for scholars as well as industry – and that’s academic prowess. And here, the EEI, and the university itself, seem again to be doing things differently. It might sound grandiose, but in essence they’re helping democratise what has previously been an elite occupation. The pioneering thinking academia once guarded so fiercely, or sold to the highest bidder, is now being made more widely available.

Ideas that used to be kept behind the ivory towers are being unlocked

“Ideas that used to be kept behind the ivory towers are being unlocked and supported to be released into the world to have a positive impact and be a public good,” says Kilduff.

“We have stopped seeing it as an either/or – you either are climate conscious or you’re making significant profits – and the world has started to see the economic opportunity in investing in climate. It’s not just hydrogens and the future of aviation, it’s everything – from food to the growth of the supply chain through which that food is brought,” he adds.

The approach Cross takes – he is after all a professor as well as director of the initiative – also shows how academics have started to look at the research they undertake differently, particularly in the developed West, or Global North as he prefers to describe it.

Knowledge exchange

A key focus of Cross’s research has been about trying to understand the impact of rapidly expanding markets for renewable energy in parts of the world with limited or restricted access to mains electricity.

One project he has been involved with is Cool Infrastructures, which has been assessing the way people in low-income communities in four cities experience, manage and adapt to heatwaves. The research, backed by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, involves anthropologists, geographers, engineers, urban planners, architects and epidemiologists and is looking at Jakarta in Indonesia, Hyderabad in India, Karachi in Pakistan and Yaoundé in Cameroon.

Here the aim is as much to share their understanding locally

Where previously the researchers might have been looking for ways to apply their findings back home, here the aim is as much to share their understanding locally.

“Many projects like this one are established to document and record the range of different mechanisms – social, political, technological – and ways people respond to heat in their everyday lives,” Cross says.

“Often, that is a push to figure out what we might learn in the Global North from these practices. In this case we were keen to create networks across those countries themselves, those cities, to facilitate a kind of South-South exchange of knowledge and information.

“As an anthropologist, I’m trying to understand people’s material lives in that context without glorifying them as solutions to people in other places, and also to understand the wider politics of efforts to make those lives better.”

This has profound implications for the way the world – including commerce – can more effectively respond to the climate crisis, based on regional patterns and needs.

“Often, we find one of the international responses [to climate-related problems] is to focus on expanding markets for particular products, goods and services. For example, we’ve seen across South Asia efforts to make cooling systems and devices like fans available to people living on low incomes. There’s a growing new market for solar-powered off-grid refrigeration systems and fans aimed at people with insecure and weak access to grid infrastructure both for use in domestic spaces, in houses, but also small businesses.

We need to understand what the expansion of new markets really does

“We need to understand what the expansion of new markets really does, what it means for relationships between producers and consumers, buyers and sellers; what the impacts are on domestic finances and people’s businesses; what kinds of new relationships between credit and debt they involve; what new waste flows they create.”

In practice, then, working with researchers on the ground, and making the findings available regionally as well as bringing them back home, makes it more likely new markets and new products will be better, more efficient and more sustainable.

“You might have a team of engineers who have developed a smart renewable energy system, which could help power health centres across East Africa. As they begin to think about what the mechanisms of that system might be and ways in which it might be implemented, they can draw on the insights and knowledge of scholars who understand and have worked in that region, rather than just trying to parachute technological fixes into a context they don’t necessarily understand,” Cross says.

“By bringing in insights from regional scholars, historians and social scientists, we are able to establish more context-appropriate responses to the climate crisis.”

Putting people first

When asked which is the most important imperative for climate-related research, to combat it or adapt to it, Cross replies: “I’m a social anthropologist, not an engineer. The biggest imperative [from my perspective] is to understand and address the social, cultural and political dimensions, not the technical ones.

“We have a lot of focus on materials, on techno fixes or solutions. But we all know the mechanics of getting to those solutions involve us understanding public opinion, the ways in which people elect politicians who make massive funding and policy decisions. We also need to understand how it is that people might respond to the kinds of techno fixes they might get presented with in their own lives.

“It’s all very well in the UK to have ground-source or air-source heat pumps, but if the mechanics of purchasing those and installing them in people’s homes are unviable or seen as beyond reach or a middle-class preoccupation, it will not happen widely.”

Recent government commissioned work has focused on the behavioural dimensions of getting to net zero in the UK

Cross says it is likely his work as an anthropologist filters through into the way the EEI works, by including the humanities and social science departments in interdisciplinary collaborations, for example. He argues not enough is being done to understand behaviour, including by companies that design products or solutions to climate-created problems.

“We know recent pieces of work commissioned by the government have focused on the behavioural dimensions of getting to net zero in the UK and recognising that’s a fundamental challenge,” he says.

“The fact the university appointed me to the role rather than a climate scientist or engineer signals a recognition the ‘people stuff’ is challenging and not always as firmly imprinted at the heart of what we do as everything else.”

Cross is equally convinced the EEI is already making a difference, both in raising the profile of the university and engaging its students, but also attracting outside academic and investor interest.

“We see that in the level of expressions of interest from external collaborators approaching the university; we’re beginning to see that in relation to the level of interest in climate and sustainability-related activity from philanthropic donors and trusts and foundations,” he says.

Miles Costello is a multi-award-winning writer and journalist.

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