Elspeth’s interest in applying science to practical problems led her to co-found Intelligent Space, which models pedestrians in the built environment.
Elspeth Finch was born into a family of scientists: her mother was a physicist, her father a professor of physics and her grandfather an engineer. Science was always around her growing up, in conversations at dinner or when her father’s students or colleagues came to visit. So it probably wasn’t a surprise that science came naturally to her and that she chose to study chemistry at the University of York.
Putting theory into practice
Elspeth enjoyed chemistry at university and was most drawn to the practical topics with clear applications, in particular atmospheric chemistry and environmental science. After working briefly in a medical technology start-up during the summer of 1996, she moved across to the engineering faculty at Newcastle University to study for a Master's in transportation planning and policy. This brought together her knowledge of chemistry with her interest in practical applications. Her thesis focused on the environmental and economic benefits in Oxford of moving from diesel to electric or fuel cell powered buses in Oxford – an issue still topical today.
“I was much more interested in the applied side of science and so, when I was doing my Master's, I was looking at different ways to bring my scientific knowledge into a more applied field.”
From science to business
Through both her Master's project and her later work at the Bartlett Faculty at University College London, Elspeth began to realise how useful a scientific background could be in the built environment sector. This led her, aged 24, to co-found Intelligent Space, a company that brought an evidence-based approach to modelling pedestrians in the built environment. She spent seven years growing the company, from 2000 to 2007, working on projects in the US, Australia and Germany, as well as in the UK. She then sold the company to international design, engineering and project management consultancy, Atkins, in 2007.
She has since worked on many exciting and innovative projects. A particular highlight for her was Oxford Circus, known as one of the busiest intersections in the UK, which handles more than 40,000 people per hour at peak times. Using camera footage of the area, Elspeth and her team were able to create and refine a detailed pedestrian model of the junction and identify the bottlenecks. Working in a team of architects and engineers, they set about redesigning the intersection. They created a ‘diagonal crossing’ that allows both traffic and pedestrians to move through it more smoothly – an important contribution to this high quality area in the heart of London.
Looking to the future
Her scientific and entrepreneurial background led Elspeth to set up a ‘Futures Team’ in Atkins where a key focus area was future proofing cities. Elspeth drew heavily on her chemistry roots as the team looked at issues from water quality and environmental pollution, to risks from space weather. In 2014, Elspeth was promoted to director of innovation for Atkins’ UK & Europe business. In this role, she looks for ways to improve the company’s capacity to conceive and apply new ideas. Alongside this, she continues to work closely with and mentor entrepreneurs working in science and engineering.
Having worked in a number of varied teams throughout her career, Elspeth makes a final reflection on the importance of diversity:
“Bringing together teams of people with different skill sets and a breadth of backgrounds helps to deliver fresh thinking, which is critical for innovation.”
Words by Stephen McCarthy and Elspeth Finch
Images © Royal Society of Chemistry /Anne Purkiss
Published September 2015