BUSINESSES in Scotland are increasingly turning to universities for help during the recession, according to figures from the public body charged with forging links between academics and entrepreneurs.
Inquiries to Interface – the organisation set up to share universities' research with businesses – rocketed during the first three months of the year.
In March, Interface received 63 requests for help from businesses, compared with a monthly average of 39 during the 2007-8 financial year. Over the first quarter as a whole, inquiries were up by 28 per cent.
Since the start of the year, some 26 collaborative projects have been launched, in which academics will work with businesses to develop new products or processes for industry. By comparison, during the whole of 2008, 59 projects were initiated.
Siobhan Jordan, the director of Interface – which is backed by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and the Scottish Government's Seekit grants scheme – thinks the rise in inquiries is down to the recession biting.
Ms Jordan told The Scotsman: "In terms of what we've seen in the first quarter of 2009, it's a lot of new companies approaching us. They really think that being innovative with their products and services is the way to get out of this downturn.
"The companies are spread right across the economy. The majority will be Scottish SMEs, but they're across all sectors, from food and drink through to engineering, and from life sciences through to the oil and gas sector. They're looking at new products or improving the products they already sell."
She went on: "Our collaborations are creating new jobs in Scotland. I think our universities can offer a lot to companies to help them be innovative during the economic downturn."
An economic assessment of Interface's partnerships between businesses and universities is expected in about 18 months, Jordan said.
But she pointed to the figures for knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) – one form of project that can stem from Interface's collaborations – which showed that, on average, companies can increase their full-year pre-tax profits by 220,000 by working with researchers.
Not all of Interface's programmes lead to KTPs – a scheme set up by the then Department for Trade and Industry in 1976. Some result in more specialised working relationships.
Interface was launched as a three-year pilot scheme in 2005 and its funding was extended by the SFC last year for a further five years, with up to 250,000 a year available.
Since the organisation was set up, it has had more than 1,300 inquiries, leading to 653 introductions, with 139 collaborations under way.
Jordan said: "Part of the success is down to more companies knowing about us and also some degree of referral by companies that we have already worked with. They are the best advocates for our services."
Andy Willox, Scottish policy convener for the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "In a difficult economic period, small firms have been looking at means to become more efficient.
"Closer working between businesses and higher education institutions can only be a step in the right direction for an innovative economy and a highly skilled, not simply highly qualified, workforce."
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