Helen Pratt: Innovation is about more than new products

Universities can help develop new ideas writes Helen.
Universities can help develop new ideas writes Helen.
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UNIVERSITIES can help companies develop new ideas, writes Helen Pratt

Is it just me or is innovation one of those words we bandy about without really giving it much thought? The government, whether in Edinburgh or Westminster, certainly places a lot of emphasis on the importance of it to our economy and yet the concept isn’t so much misunderstood in the workplace as not understood. Consequently, individuals may feel “innovation” is someone else’s responsibility and companies sometimes feel that they are too small to innovate.

I don’t think we can argue that it’s important, so why is it so difficult to understand? I like Wikipedia’s definition:

Innovation is a new idea, more effective device or process. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.

If a sales order clerk changes a process to make it more efficient or easier to use, that’s innovation – and should be recognised as such.

In our experience at Interface Food & Drink, innovation is too often narrowly defined as meaning the introduction of new products. That definition also excludes many employees from the process, whereas the sales order clerk example is something the entire workforce can understand and contribute to.

For those companies that do get it and want to innovate, they may not know where to turn to for guidance or for the innovation itself. Did you know that all of Scotland’s universities will engage with both individuals and companies who have ideas they want to take forward? Not only that, it is actually a requirement that, in order to continue to receive public funding, they must engage with small to medium sized companies in such a way that will have an identifiable impact.

To try to bring the food industry and academia closer, Interface Food & Drink will be hosting an event in Edinburgh on 28 January which will have three themes –

• Resource and Process Efficiency

• Testing, Analysis and Quality Control

• Technologies of the Future

I’ve been very concerned lately with waste, particularly with reference to food – whether it’s over-consumption leading to obesity (if we don’t regard obesity as a waste issue yet, we will soon), over-capacity leading to wasted production or unnecessary purchase leading to discarded food. Innovation in any of these areas can reduce waste. As you would imagine, resource efficiency is about using less of any of production inputs, such as water, energy and raw materials and process efficiency ensures that as much as possible gets to market.

Testing, analysis and quality control ensures that the market gets what it needs and that outputs are not wasted or of less value than planned.

I hope this event will trigger a few things but mostly a better understanding of the wider meaning of innovation and how it can apply to everyone within an organisation. Every organisation, whatever size, can benefit from adopting innovation and can appreciate the sort of help and inspiration available from Scotland’s universities.

Two great examples of food producers and academics working together are the recent winners of the Interface Food & Drink Common Interest Group Competition.

The Farm Waste Utilisation Group comprises farms across Scotland and academics from four Scottish universities. Their project will explore converting farm waste such as manure into clean gases and liquid fuels through a gasification process.

The second is a syndicate of soft fruit growers investigating producing alcohol from second grade fruit using sugar-rich by-products from tablet production, as well as turning food waste into fuel, fertiliser and chemicals. Working with a craft distillery and a confectionery manufacturer, this group will be collaborating with academics from three Edinburgh-based universities.

I, for one, am looking forward to seeing the results of both projects.

• Helen Pratt, Interface Food & Drink project leader