With a keen interest in both sport and business dealings, Graham Watson talks a lot about performance under pressure. And as chairman of InnoScot, a team of 20 people working to commercialise new ideas from the 155,000 healthcare professionals working across the NHS in Scotland, he is getting ample opportunity to lead by example in tackling a formidable task.

“One of the things you learn in sport, and at the elite end of sport especially, is how to perform well under pressure,” he said. “You are under intense pressure to deliver, and you don’t really get too many second chances in sport.

“That whole kind of performance under pressure culture, when you translate it back into business and see how organisations and leadership groups deal with pressure – there are many good illustrations where sport would help them.”

Endeavour – athletic and otherwise – is a recurring theme in the life of Mr Watson, who was the first among his family in Edinburgh to get a university education. In a career that has spanned various continents and multiple industries he has taken on a variety of challenges, the most unusual being a spell as a golf caddie for his younger daughter Sally, who turned professional in 2013.

“She had a very good amateur career and went to university in the States, and after she graduated decided to turn professional,” he said. “As parents we had made the decision to support her in her golf, [and that was not] the ideal time to say ‘oh, you’re on your own now’.

“When they turn professional the commitments just grow so we decided we would support her through that period. In Scotland it’s difficult to raise significant amounts of sponsorship if you’re a young emerging athlete – keeping your costs down and managing your little business is important.

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“So for about four years I had the pleasure of travelling around the world and seeing her play and trying to do some business in between times, which was never easy, but I managed to go to pretty much all four corners of the globe and enjoy many experiences.”

After graduating in law from the University of Edinburgh, Mr Watson used his degree as a precursor to qualify as a chartered accountant and pursue the career in business he had always fancied. He joined Pete Marwick Mitchell, a predecessor to “Big Four” accounting firm KPMG, where he was sent to Atlanta on an 18-month international businesses development programme.

His aspirations to work abroad were cut short after his widowed mother became terminally ill, leading him to return to Scotland after just 15 months to nurse her until she died. He then secured a job with Edinburgh merchant bank Noble Grossart where he spent the next decade working on some of the biggest corporate deals of that period.

Among the bank’s clients was Sir David Murray, whose privately-owned Murray Group ran a variety of mining, property, venture capital and call centre businesses. Mr Watson joined forces with Murray Capital in 1989 to set up management and marketing company Carnegie Sports International, working primarily with clients in rugby and golf.

He returned to the Big Four fold in 1992 – this time as a partner with Deloitte – and went to San Francisco, where he worked through the rise and fall of the dot.com era and other seismic events, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and demise of Arthur Andersen on the back of the Enron scandal.

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“You learn a lot about great leadership through these sorts of experiences, and that was always something I was really fascinated about – what makes a great leader,” he said. “When I looked at what the best leaders were doing in those difficult periods, it was their communication that stood out.”

He returned to Scotland in 2004 for his daughters to finish their schooling and worked in a variety of advisory roles that would later be shaped around his golfing travels with his daughter. She played her last professional tournament in 2017, two years after Mr Watson joined InnoScot as executive chairman.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, InnoScot is funded primarily by the Scottish Government to help identify and develop healthcare innovations. These range from relatively simple products such as RhinoPinch – a nasal clip to stop nose bleeds – up to the more complex end of spin-out companies.

Among the latter is Glasgow-based Aurum Biosciences, which recently raised venture capital funding to support development of its therapeutic drug for stroke victims. Set to go into clinical trials, the drug is based on a small molecule that can carry oxygen past a blood clot to where it is needed in the brain.

“Although we are a small team we feel we really deliver across a wide range of stakeholder groups,” Mr Watson said of InnoScot. “The success we’ve had in the last few years is testament to the really strong vision for what we are trying to accomplish.” 


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
Visiting India with my daughter when she was playing professional golf and being taken to the Taj Mahal was breathtaking. The biggest surprise for me was the food, which is unparalleled in flavour, imagination and intrigue.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
I wanted to work in America – it didn’t much matter at what, although my bedroom wall was covered with US sport posters. I used to listen to NFL football on a Sunday night via the American Forces broadcasting network.

What was your biggest break in business?
Working at Noble Grossart as a 25-year-old and experience some of the biggest and most complex corporate M&A transactions of the day, at the right hand of the late Sir Angus Grossart, was career-defining. Seeing leaders operate under high pressure and learning why some succeed and some fail made a lasting impression.

What was your worst moment in business?
Waking up in San Francisco to the TV news showing the unfolding 9/11 tragedy and knowing I had close colleagues working in our New York office, directly across the street from the Twin Towers, was emotionally challenging. Thankfully all my colleagues escaped safely.

Who do you most admire and why?
As chairman of Tennis Scotland, I have come to appreciate the many admirable traits of Roger Federer. He is a sportsman of the highest integrity, an exemplary role model and a devoted family man.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
Through Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh Business School, I have been involved for the past few years with Panmure House, 
the final home of economist Adam Smith, so I am reading Russ Robert’s book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life – An Unexpected Guide To Human Nature And Happiness.