Q&A with Nuala Kilmartin, Innovate UK and UKRI

  • How would you describe the role of UKRI to someone who may not of heard of the department before?

    UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a governmental organisation that oversees and funds research and innovation activities in the United Kingdom. It was established in 2018 to bring together several key funding bodies, including the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK, and Research England, under a single umbrella organization. UKRI allocates funding to support research and innovation projects conducted by universities, research institutions, businesses, and other organizations. It distributes funds through various channels, such as grants, fellowships, and collaborative partnerships.

    The primary role of UKRI is to drive forward the UK's research and innovation agenda by funding and supporting projects across a wide range of disciplines, from science and engineering to social sciences and the arts. UK Research and Innovation plays a pivotal role in driving forward the UK's research and innovation ecosystem, fostering excellence, collaboration, and impact across a diverse range of disciplines and sectors. By being part of UKRI, Innovate UK benefits from synergies with other research funding bodies, enabling a more coordinated and strategic approach to supporting innovation and research across the UK. This integration allows for better alignment of resources, expertise, and support mechanisms to foster innovation and drive economic growth.

    Do you need to have a degree or background in STEM to have a successful career in tech?

    Having a degree or background in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) can certainly provide a strong foundation for a career in the tech industry, but it's not always a strict requirement. The tech industry is diverse and encompasses a wide range of roles that require various skills and expertise beyond STEM. Ultimately, while a STEM background can open doors to certain opportunities in the tech industry, it's not the only pathway to a successful career. Individuals from diverse educational backgrounds and experiences contribute to the innovation and growth of the tech sector, cognitive diversity is a hugely powerful thing. It's essential to identify your strengths, interests, and career goals and pursue opportunities that align with them, whether they're technical or non-technical roles.

    How important is the collaboration between Government, Industry and Academia to you?

    The collaboration between Government, Industry, and Academia is critically important for driving innovation, fostering economic growth, and addressing societal challenges. Each sector brings unique strengths, resources, and perspectives to the table, and when they collaborate effectively, they can achieve far-reaching impact. Collaboration is one of our four Key People Standards and we are encouraged to collaborate and engage so as everyone is valued and included. Collaboration between Government, Industry, and Academia is vital for driving innovation, economic development, talent development, addressing societal challenges, and shaping effective policies. By working together, these sectors can leverage their respective strengths to create a more prosperous, equitable, and sustainable future.

    What has been the most interesting project you’ve been involved with?

    To date, I have to say my project work I am presently involved in, and have worked on for the last 3 and half years with UKRI’s Digital Security by Design Challenge has definitely been the most interesting.

    Digital Security by Design is a UK government supported initiative to help catalyse the transformation of digital technology creating a more resilient and secure foundation for a safer digital future. With collaboration between academia, industry and government delivering more secure semiconductor devices to pave the way for business and people to safely use and maintain trust in technology. The DSbD programme was set up in 2019, to unlock research and enable industry with the objective to fix the foundations of computing and realise technical developments, the size of which computing has not seen for 50 years or more.

    The team sits within the wider Digital Technologies Domain within Innovate UK, and my role entails the collaboration on the Digital Catapult’s DSbD Technology Access Programme whereby we are collaborating with industry across the Four Nations of the UK to recruit Tier 1 SME’s and Tier 2 Larger Organisations with the opportunity to receive a grant of £15,000 to investigate and experiment with an Arm Morello Board and Cambridge University’s CHERI Software Architecture. The Programme cohort applicants feed back on their findings that add value to the wider DSbD ecosystem and showcase the impact of our objective and ambition to a journey to a more resilient digital future. I am also responsible for the strategic outreach and implementation of the stakeholder engagement strategy. While some of the fundamental market failures have been overcome, it is still imperative that UK Government, industry, academia and international partners continue to work together to maintain and develop this ecosystem further by driving forwards adoption of this ground-breaking approach to protecting the digital world.

    How has online learning evolved to enable accessibility and upskilling for emerging technologies?

    Online learning has undergone significant evolution to facilitate accessibility and upskilling for emerging technologies in several ways over the years and it is enabling learners from around the world to access high-quality educational resources and expertise. This global reach fosters cultural exchange, collaboration, and diversity of perspectives, enriching the learning experience for all participants. Online learning platforms often collaborate with industry partners, technology companies, and subject matter experts to develop and deliver relevant, up-to-date content. Industry partnerships ensure that course materials reflect current trends, best practices, and real-world applications of emerging technologies, enhancing their relevance and value to learners. It has evolved to become a powerful tool that offers flexible, inclusive, and high-quality educational experiences for all that empower individuals to thrive in the digital age.

    What are the advantages of a dedicated innovation department in a software or technology company?

    A dedicated innovation department within a software or technology company can offer many advantages such as a dedicated team that can focus specifically on generating and implementing innovative ideas and strategies. This focus enables the business to stay ahead of competitors, anticipate market trends, and explore new opportunities for growth and differentiation. Very often Innovation departments can provide a safe space for experimentation and risk-taking, where employees are encouraged to explore new ideas, technologies, and approaches without fear of failure. This culture of experimentation fosters creativity, resilience, and a willingness to challenge the status quo, driving continuous improvement and innovation across the organisation.

    A dedicated team can play a crucial role in driving competitiveness within a software or technology company and enabling it to navigate the rapidly changing landscape of the digital economy. They also need to incorporate cybersecurity measures into the design and development of new products and services from the outset. By embedding security principles into the innovation process, the company can proactively mitigate potential risks and vulnerabilities, ensuring that products are resilient to cyber threats and meet regulatory compliance requirements.

    What does the future of tech look like to you – is AI the only show in town?

    The future of technology is incredibly dynamic and multifaceted, with numerous emerging trends and innovations reshaping the way we live, work, and interact with the world – this has been highlighted in Innovate UK’s 50 emerging technologies insight report. The future of tech is diverse, interconnected, and filled with possibilities for positive impact and transformation across all industries and sectors. Yes AI and machine learning technologies are a huge opportunity, as they continue to advance rapidly, enabling machines to perform increasingly complex tasks and make intelligent decisions without explicit programming but there is still much being done on the trustworthiness aspects. AI is being applied across various domains, including natural language processing, computer vision, robotics, healthcare, finance, and autonomous vehicles, transforming industries and driving innovation. We must be cognitive of the threat posed by AI in cyber security as it could be used in adversarial ways to find vulnerabilities; hence the need for our systems to be secure by design and secure by default.

    What are the opportunities and benefits of working in the tech sector?

    In my opinion working in the tech sector offers exciting opportunities for professional growth, innovation, and making a positive impact on the world. Whether you're a software engineer, data scientist, cybersecurity analyst, or product manager, the tech industry provides a dynamic and rewarding environment for individuals with a passion for technology and a drive to succeed. Women in tech bring a compassionate and holistic approach to problem-solving, driving the development of technology that has a positive impact on society.

    Like many career paths, I have fallen into a tech career, but now feel I have a significant role to play as a Women in Tech to bring diverse perspectives and ideas and help drive diversity and inclusion and also help increase representation. I am a STEM ambassador and an avid promoter of EDI whereby I help inspire others to pursue careers in STEM and contribute to closing the gender gap in the tech industry. I believe in championing women in cybersecurity and creating opportunities for their participation and leadership, so as we can build a stronger and more resilient cybersecurity workforce and industry.

    What advice would you give to someone who would like to change career or consider a career in tech? 

    If you're considering a career change or exploring a career in the tech industry, I would say to firstly do your research to get a better understanding of the roles, responsibilities and skills required for different jobs and assess what aspects of technology and the tech industry appeal to you most and then take some time to reflect on and identify your interests, strengths and skills. Networking is a very valuable tool for exploring career opportunities, gaining insights into the tech industry, and connecting with professionals who can offer guidance and support.

    I would wholly recommend joining or attending some meetups or open events or networks to get expand your network and meet likeminded individuals who can provide advice and guidance and perhaps even mentorship. Another key important task would be to set up a social media presence and optimise this to attract recruiters and connect with industry professionals. It may take time, effort and patience, but you can seek support and advice from many career counsellors, mentors, peers, or industry associations as you navigate your career transition to pursue a successful, rewarding and fulfilling career in tech.

    Looking ahead, what emerging technologies or areas of research do you believe hold the most promise for driving future innovation in the tech industry?

    While artificial intelligence (AI) is certainly a significant driver of innovation in the tech industry, it's not the only area with promising potential. There are many other emerging technologies and areas of research that hold great promise for shaping the future of tech and driving innovation across various industries and domains such as Machine Learning, Quantum and Edge Computing, IoT, Blockchain, 5G and the Next Generation of Connectivity, and Sustainability Technologies in energy storage and renewable energy, again see the recent publication of Innovate UK’s 50 emerging technologies. These can all bring huge benefits in reimaging business process and adapting to changing market dynamics and customer expectations.

    However, as the digital world is evolving at an unprecedented pace, driven by rapid advancements in technology, and we are connected today in more ways than ever before; and the growth in the use of digital technologies offers great opportunities, we also face a major challenge: how to secure the digital world from cyber threats. Hence, we need to ensure the digital world is considering security by default and by design to create more secure foundations for a safer more resilient digital future. So I believe cybersecurity and privacy technologies need to become ever more critical to protect sensitive data and ensure trust in digital systems so that all society can feel safer to work, live and play.

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