Inventive links with universities help firms to fly high
FROM a robot hawk to a flying camera that allows engineers to inspect bridges safely – and rugby coaches to organise their packs – university researchers are helping to improve inventions and boost private enterprise.
Indeed, university leaders have, in recent years, been strident in their insistence for increased investment in higher education. Despite the downturn, Scotland's principals have been consistent in their message that more cash to universities, not less, is crucial to help the nation back on the road to recovery.
But some critics are asking why train more students when there are fewer jobs. Isn't this just preparing a generation of overqualified jobless? How can this help the economy?
However, it is not only through teaching students that universities believe they can boost business in Scotland. Although they widely believe a highly qualified workforce is key for this country to compete against nations that can provide cheaper labour, for example in manufacturing, it is the other arm of university work which can more directly boost individual businesses – research. And it is not general, theoretical research, but specific, targeted expertise used to help individual businesses.
From combating bird-fouling to improving the materials used in the oil industry, university experts have been helping Scottish firms to improve their products, and, ultimately, their profits, thanks to a matchmaking agency called Interface.
Interface was created with university funding in 2005 as a three-year pilot scheme to link business with academic researchers to help improve products or surmount specific difficulties.
Robop, a mechanised falcon, is a good illustration of how such a relationship can work. The firm, also called Robop, had great success with its deterrent. But it scared off pigeons, gulls and other avian pests only in certain circumstances and not others.
Interface introduced the firm's founder, John Donald, an entrepreneur with a science background, to a bird behaviour expert at St Andrews University.
Dr Will Cresswell, of the biology department used his 20 years' experience studying the behaviour of avian prey and predators to pinpoint the problem. He concluded that the robot did not behave as a real falcon would, as it was relatively static and target birds quickly realised it posed no danger. He found the solution was to put the robot on wheels, so it could be brought out at unexpected times, mimicking the behaviour of a real raptor.
As part of the deal between the firm and St Andrews, the university will receive a share of profits on the new wheeled model once it comes off the production line.
Another example is Cyberhawk, a firm that uses Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to carry out visual inspections of constructions in the oil and gas and energy industry.
Using a UAV or a drone means no-one is put at risk working at height, and production doesn't need to be shut down in order to send a human being up to inspect a structure safely.
The firm has sought expert help from academic experts to improve the image quality of the camera, while taking into consideration the weight of the flying vehicle, plus methods to counter the shock and vibration.
Recently, the Scottish rugby team used a drone to examine its patterns of play during training to improve their performance in the Six Nations championship.
In 2007, Interface expanded to include Scotland's research institutes and now represents 26 institutes and universities.
In 2008, it was given a further five years of financial support from the Scottish Funding Council, which allocates government cash to universities and colleges.
It is early days to quantify the benefits of its efforts, and a full economic evaluation will begin in October, with results expected about next spring.
However, an interim evaluation found that, on average, a business taking part in a "knowledge transfer" scheme can expect to see an increase of more than 220,000 in annual profits, before tax, the creation of three extra jobs, as well as increased skills levels in existing staff.
Another partnership between Edinburgh Napier University and electronics firm Thales helped to speed up the production of 1,500 new pieces of laser equipment for the army. Thales is a Glasgow optronics business, which is the only UK supplier of periscopes for Royal Navy submarines and also supplies night-vision and infrared search equipment.
Dr Siobhn Jordan, director of Interface, said: "We have been delighted to assist in brokering over 200 partnerships that are leading to successful new outputs for businesses, including developing new products and processes.
"We are seeing benefits to the company, in terms of new markets for businesses, but also from the perspective of universities, huge benefits in terms of both new knowledge for teaching and research, as well as some income generation."
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said: "Interface has rapidly proven itself as a shot in the arm for Scottish businesses.
"The university-business partnerships forged by Interface deliver real results in terms of new products, processes, increased turnover and job creation, all of which is vital to help pull Scotland out of recession more quickly."
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