IAA Impact Festival 2023: Celebrating ten years of impact

Marking the tenth anniversary of EPSRC Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs), 100 researchers from five Scottish Universities came to Edinburgh on 13 September to attend the IAA Impact Festival 2023. They celebrated ten years of impact, were inspired by research impact projects, and forged connections with each other and organisations that can support and fund impact initiatives.

From designing jet engines to the Institute of Making

After words of welcome by Jennifer Rao-Williams of training company Skillfluence and EPSRC portfolio manager Laura Morcumb, who sees “great value in the IAAs”, Professor Mark Miodownik was invited to speak about his journey in Materials Science.

Driven by a love of materials, Professor Miodownik’s career had progressed from working on jet engine alloys to becoming a materials science researcher establishing a library of materials – the Institute of Making.

“As soon as you name something, there’s a power to it,” he said about his team’s Institute of Making at University College London. “We got offered a building.”

One example of his work is conducting taste tests using spoons made of different materials. “The more reactive the metal, the stronger the metal will taste,” he said. Taste tests can also be used in early cancer detection, as taste malfunctions can point to the disease.

Another example of his work is in plastic waste. His team’s deep research, with help from the public, shows that many so-called biodegradable plastics don’t break down as quickly as claimed by their manufacturers. In terms of claims, “it’s a Wild West out there.”

He’s also working on new solutions that would replace plastics. Tube tree guards that protect saplings can be made biodegradable. Hormones released by the trees can trigger their decomposition.

He emphasised the advantages of working with an interdisciplinary team. Academics from the Arts have a lot to offer, he argued. “Interdisciplinary research makes you a better researcher.”

Lightning talks by impact leaders from each university

Professor Miodownik’s keynote was followed by speakers from each university sharing insights from their impact projects.

Lothian Lugs, or “ears”, was an outreach and engagement project by Heriot-Watt University. Dr Laura Wicks and her team worked with libraries to reach out to people in West Lothian. “It was always about co-developing these programmes and everyone benefiting.”

Dr Daniel Hodgson of Edinburgh Complex Fluids Partnership presented ‘The Physics of Goo’. He noted that working with industry had given him agency; provided publication and networking opportunities; allowed him to see the real-world benefits of the science; and generated income.


The collaborative approach was key for founding Nami Surgical, Rebecca Cleary said. She went from being an academic at University of Glasgow to co-founding and becoming the technical lead at the spin-out. The IAA enabled her to start forging partnerships with medical practitioners early on.

 

Dr Ross Gillanders founded Lightwater Sensors, a spin-out of the University of St Andrews. The sensors test for chemicals, like pharmaceuticals and pesticides. “Everyone is a stakeholder” when it comes to clean water, he said.

Prof. Charles MacLeod of the University of Strathclyde shared his experience working with industry partners in transport and energy. It’s important to understand what the big problems are, he emphasised, and to “enjoy the journey.”

 

Exhibitors

In between sessions, academics had the opportunity to speak to representatives from organisations that could help match them to industry partners, connect with policymakers, or venture out as entrepreneurs. The exhibitors were: Converge, Scottish Policy and Research Exchange (SPRE), The Datalab, Scottish Enterprise, West of Scotland KTP Centre and Interface.

Networking sessions

In the afternoon, Skillfluence facilitated networking sessions where delegates from different universities could get to know each other, breaking the ice through exercises. For the ‘Common Ground’ exercise, they searched for for unusual commonalities. The ‘Combinations’ exercise had them look for connections between their work, opening the door for collaborations.

Cross-institutional IAA call

The day concluded with the announcement of a new, joint IAA call by all five universities. It proved more popular than expected: ten applications are now being assessed, a handful of which will be funded as impactful cross-institutional collaborations.