Lews Castle College UHI is to see a major expansion of its Innovation Centre thanks to £20,000 from wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust.

The money will go towards high-tech equipment to allow the centre to expand its research and testing capabilities into more specialist areas such as communications and bio-tech.

The centre’s research capabilities will be doubled and the founder of the centre, former NASA contract engineer Dr Chris Macleod, hopes it will foster a new generation of technologically literate islanders, encourage more high-tech start-ups and attract inward investment.

Chris, who is from Marybank and returned to the island four years ago after a 30-year career elsewhere, wants to see a new focus in the islands on high-tech, health-wealth industries.

“If you look at the richest people in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and all the rest of them — every one of them is a high-tech entrepreneur. The highest worth, highest growth industries in the world are high-technology industries and unless civilisation comes to an end suddenly, that’s not going to change. It’s only going to get bigger.”

He believes there is no reason why Lewis could not be at the forefront.

“Why not? It’s actually very easy to do it here compared to other industries on the island.

“For example, if you’ve got a large manufacturing facility on the island, making large steel structures, then you’ve got to ship those off the island. If you’re developing software, you just push a button and it gets sent to the other side of the world in a second. There’s no ‘big things’ to export. You can also do it as a distributed workforce from your house.”

Lecturer Chris came to Lews Castle College UHI from Robert Gordon University, where he was senior lecturer and director of research in its School of Engineering. He was in the US before that.

Chris believes in the power of the entrepreneur and was delighted to secure the funding from PST to take the Innovation Centre to the next level.

The centre will be opened out to individual members of the public and interested community organisations later in the year. It is currently used by students and staff at the college and schoolchildren through the ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) programme.

The centre is essentially a large room in the college, containing desks equipped with electronics testing equipment for research and development. It also has a small 3D printer, which allows mechanical pieces to be printed out.

Its research work is focused on micro-controllers — small, single-board computer controllers which can be programmed in a myriad of ways. Chris describes them as “kits for invention”, where “the only limit is your imagination”.

But although micro-controllers themselves are extremely cheap — a few pounds on Amazon – the testing equipment can be extremely expensive and that’s where the new cash support comes in.

The £20,000 from PST – the charity behind the award-winning Beinn Ghrideag community wind farm just outside Stornoway — will allow the centre to buy more high-tech equipment and a bigger, more sophisticated 3D printer, capable of generating a model of a propellor, for example.

The money will also allow the centre to expand its footprint within the college campus.

Until now, the centre has been limited to work in areas such as environmental monitoring and energy efficiency. The new equipment will take them into new areas such as communications — including the internet, WiFi, mobile phones and Apps. It will also allow work in biotech, such as developments to monitor hip replacements and diagnose Type 2 diabetes.

Point and Sandwick Trust chairman Angus McCormack said: “Innovation is part of what we promote at PST. Finding solutions to everyday problems to the benefit of our community is a key aspiration for the board. In supporting the creation of the PST Innovation Centre in conjunction with UHI we seek to encourage cutting edge thinking that may benefit us all.”

Around 15 people so far have expressed an interest in using the centre once it opens to the public, with “quite a lot of interest from people interested in developing aids for health-related issues”. Chris invited anyone else interested to email him directly at christopher.Macleod@uhi.ac.uk.

The focus of the centre is on coding, programming and software development, with the aim of helping people develop prototypes. However, there will also be business advice.

A number of college staff will be involved in the Innovation Centre in a variety of roles.

There are “two facets” to the support available at the centre, said Chris. “One is technical training and support. The other is help to produce a business plan that you can take to a bank or an agency like an enterprise agency or a venture capitalist. The aim is for people to walk out with two things — a prototype and a business plan.”

Unsuccessful in securing funding elsewhere, Chris turned to Point and Sandwick Trust on the advice of a lecturer colleague, Andrew Mackenzie, who is also a board member of PST.

Chris said: We are very grateful for Point and Sandwick Trust’s support for the project. It will ensure that the centre will have the best equipment on the island, which will benefit everyone —students, school pupils, local businesses, entrepreneurs and the community in general.

“The very worst that can happen is all the school kids and the students on the island have access to all these new facilities — so it’s a very, very low risk venture. The island benefits, no matter what happens. Even if no companies come out of it — worst case scenario — it means that young people from the Western Isles can train in these areas.”

Engineering lecturer Andrew, who is also chairman of the Institution of Engineering and Technology for the North of Scotland, said it was “a privilege to be able to channel hard cash” into this centre which would bring “something different and special” and had “the potential to bring interesting, well-paid jobs to the Western Isles”.

He said: “Chris has been to other people asking for support and he’s not had it — and then Point and Sandwick said, ‘oh yeah, this is a good thing… we’ll give you money’. I think we are a Trust that thinks about things.

“Point and Sandwick have made quite a significant impact with, not just the college, but other good causes, and the grant application is straightforward.”

  • In the picture, Point and Sandwick Trust general manager Donald John MacSween looks on while student Natasha Tew uses the centre for research, helped by Chris Macleod (centre) and Andrew Mackenzie. 
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