The Low Carbon Ideas Lab

A landing pad for modern-day entrepreneurs with ideas for the future

Ideas Lab PanelWe are a culture that loves a good sales pitch. And we love the idea of the entrepreneurial spirit taking aim and becoming a success – the romance of the perfect product hitting the sweet spot of the market and becoming ubiquitous to our lives. Cue the wheel, sliced bread and the smart phone. But where do ideas come from and how do we actually encourage the great ones to rise?

Recognising that the way to speed the shift to a low carbon economy is to support the development of new low carbon products and services – the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, 2020 Climate Group and many others are committed to encouraging good ideas to grow and develop. After all, the creation of new and pioneering products and services is only going to happen with truly innovative and motivated entrepreneurs. There is clearly a need but how do we foster and incubate them? How do we speed up the idea development process? What makes someone quit their day job and plunge into a risky set up that is, on average, quite likely to fail?

On the eve of the official announcement of the winners of ECCI’s new Low Carbon Ideas Lab we spoke to Victoria Barby, Project Director for the 2020 Climate Group, and ECCI’s own Business Development Lead, Charlotte Waugh, who both sit on the selection panel, about innovation spotting, Scotland’s burgeoning low carbon economy and why women make great entrepreneurs…

A real entrepreneur is less adverse to risk more willing to see how their idea plays out

It’s not merely personality or talent – no one is born an entrepreneur. It can certainly be affected by providing the right environment though. In general the entrepreneurial mindset exhibits an attitude to risk that is different from most people. A real entrepreneur is less adverse to risk taking and more willing to see how their idea plays out. To foster entrepreneurs an organisation (or institution or government) can mitigate some of the risk – this can help speed up the process. Most companies and businesses are not really about entrepreneurship – and they are certainly not about risk. They may have some policies or strategies in place for fostering innovation but an entrepreneur is not necessarily sitting at a desk spinning out ideas. In other words today’s entrepreneurs may not know who they are! We were able to use the community of the 2020 Climate Group and ECCI to start to find good ideas and the people who have them. For someone who is a low carbon entrepreneur the support they will receive here will make a big difference. Just being based within ECCI and having access to this community is going to be hugely valuable.

So what’s the difference between a run-of-the-mill good idea and an idea worth mortgaging your house for?

Innovation! Everyone has the odd good idea. And some people will have the drive and skill and to take it to the next level and turn it into a saleable product or business but entrepreneurship is more than that. It’s partly the attitude to risk but also it’s about innovation. A good idea might be rehashing something that is already in the market. An entrepreneur has the vision to introduce a totally new product or service – one that acts in a transformative manner on the economy. It’s not always about inventing the wheel but it is about innovation of some sort. That is what the Ideas Lab was set up for – to foster and develop innovative products and services, specifically ones that are low carbon.

Scotland has always been at the cutting edge of economic transformation – innovation is nothing new here. We just want to ensure that low carbon is part of it.

− Victoria Barby, Project Director, 2020 Climate Group

Why does ECCI want to support entrepreneurs and businesses?

The Edinburgh Centre is committed to helping Scotland transform its current economy to a low carbon one. This means giving people in Scotland the opportunity and support to think, grow and develop ideas about low carbon products and services. Scotland has always been at the cutting edge of economic transformation – innovation is nothing new here. We just want to ensure that low carbon is part of it. ECCI is that organisation that can make the difference between a good idea and something that really changes things. We can help mitigate the risk, we can supply the place and space to think and test ideas, we can provide an encouraging and intelligent community and we can ask the right, and sometimes difficult, questions. Ideas need sector specific support in order to grow and succeed and the Edinburgh Centre can provide this in spades. We don’t expect all the ideas we support to succeed – in fact part of our job may be to point out when it’s time to walk away from an idea or how to develop it in a different direction in order to make it really work. But we know that this kind of support can be a real game changer and that’s what we are here for.

Why do entrepreneurs need help and support – aren’t they going to make a fortune anyway?

The Low Carbon Ideas Lab is about providing a platform of support (mostly non financial) to people who are very serious about taking forward ideas that will help change things for the better.
− Charlotte Waugh, Business Development, ECCI

No! Most of them are going to lose a fortune! At least in time and energy if not pounds. Early support, expertise and mentorship is crucial – both to help the good ideas rise and take shape but also to nip questionable ones in the bud so energy is not wasted (that in itself is a low carbon statement!). The Low Carbon Ideas Lab is not about handing over millions to someone with a business idea, it’s about providing a platform of support (mostly non financial) to people who are very serious about taking forward ideas that will help change things for the better. Our criteria for the Low Carbon Ideas Lab was very clear – it had to be innovative and it had to contribute to a low carbon economy. We looked for people with true commitment and a defined product, service or idea, prepared to spend the majority of their time over the next 12 months on it and with a clear direction for its development. We didn’t consider ideas that were simply about setting up a new business or marketing an existing product. One of the key things about the Lab is the process of mentorship – the advice and expertise of someone who has been there and knows what you are trying to do is invaluable. This is where the 2020 Climate Group really contribute – mentorship from professionals at this level is truly worth its weight.

Why a particular focus on supporting women entrepreneurs?

It’s not unusual for a woman to set up a small business or take an idea to market – but they need support to take it to the next level and start to consider truly innovating.
− Charlotte Waugh, Business Development, ECCI

Well, women can be perceived to have a mixed attitude to risk – while they may be seen traditionally to be more risk adverse, possibly homemakers or in service industries, in reality they are often likely to be the one to set up a small business or take an idea to market. But they are also less likely to develop that product or service further and so need more support. We want to ensure that this attitude is fostered in order to develop into the next step – a truly innovative idea. We also want to ensure that we are getting ideas from all angles of the economy. Low carbon is not just about wind turbines and electric cars, it is about the retail environment and about attitudes and decisions that people make every day. Women are underrepresented in the fields of engineering, tech and science which is where the expectation that innovation will come from but in reality it is just as likely to some from someone who has simply had the right idea for the right moment – and that is just as likely to be a woman so we want to make sure we hear it. We want to ensure that women have a chance to think and experiment and take risks on an equal basis – the Low Carbon Ideas Lab is committed to supporting this.

Being cruel to be kind – Low carbon ideas don’t grow on trees

Sometimes we have to be Simon Cowell and tell someone that they just can’t sing!

− Victoria Barby, Project Director, 2020 Climate Group

It’s true – it’s important to let people know when they don’t have a very good idea. Or if their idea isn’t very new, or innovative, or if the market simply isn’t ready for it. This kind of advice, delivered at the right time, can be very important to an entrepreneur. It might mean the difference between them spending the next three years hammering away at something that simply isn’t feasible. It might free them up to work on their next idea, which may better!
The main thing for the selection committee was assessing how an idea might fit into the low carbon marketplace. It wasn’t always immediately obvious but the challenge was to definitely to think broadly and look for ideas that were really groundbreaking and will make a difference. These sorts of ideas don’t grow on trees – we had to use the resources of our community and the 2020 Climate Group membership and the other panellists, including John Hughes from the Business Gateway and Sanne Downie from University of Edinburgh Alumni & Development, to ensure that we were looking in the right places. We also needed to ensure that the people we choose to support will actual benefit from the package we can offer, from access to ECCI’s community to mentoring, it had to be the right fit. And finally it needed to be an idea that could work with our timescales – up to 12 months – which are quite ambitious!

And the winners are…?
Next week will see the selected Low Carbon Ideas Lab participants take their places at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation. Stay tuned for an announcement on Monday 17th November.

The Low Carbon Ideas Lab is supported by the University of Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh Council and is one of 2020 Climate Group’s ’14 priorities for 2014’. To find out more about the Low Carbon Ideas Lab or for information on the next call for applicants please contact ECCI at info@edinburghcentre.org or phone 0131 650 5326.

The 2020 Climate Group was set up by business in response to the Climate Change Act. The group encourages business to support government in meeting the ambitious emissions targets for 2020 and to act as a ‘critical friend’ to government. The long term aim of the group is to contribute to the transformational change required for Scotland to progress to a low carbon economy by bringing together business, voluntary and public sectors to work together. Visit the 2020 Climate Group website for more information.

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