Universities and businesses go nicely together

Picture: Neil Hanna
Picture: Neil Hanna
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Research uncovering new possibilities, says Alan Gilloran

Food and drink sector companies tapping into the knowledge and world-class expertise of Scotland’s academics are seeing their businesses flourish as research uncovers previously unimagined possibilities for their products and services. When small Scottish technology business Advanced Microwave Technologies (AMT) began working on trials for its pioneering microwave technology there was little to indicate that the collaboration with Queen Margaret University had the potential to revolutionise food-processing on a global basis.

The resulting research proved the technology could extend the shelf life of food and drink without destroying nutrients and antioxidants and, crucially, without altering taste. Now the company, which was originally established in the wake of the BSE crisis to sterilise and reduce blood waste from abattoirs, is discussing business development opportunities with More than 100 companies throughout the UK and abroad. Global giants Coca-Cola, Smart Salt and Del Monte, and closer to home Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Northern Foods are showing interest.

Having purchased an AMT machine, Alloa-based Get Juiced has extended the shelf life of its products from 7 to 28 days and has doubled production, sales and their workforce as a result. And by working with academics, Forfar-based Strathmore Foods, producers of frozen and chilled Scottish products for both retail and food service markets, has now launched a successful low-salt black pudding and haggis product.

Attracting worldwide attention

Nutritional analysis has helped East Lothian companies Black and Gold and Belhaven Fruit Farm identify a range of health components found in their respective products. Black and Gold’s rapeseed oil was shown to have naturally occurring antioxidants which are not diminished by domestic cooking and Belhaven Fruit Farm was able to make confident statements about the health benefits of its Ice Delight, boosting sales as a result.

These success stories are just the tip of the iceberg as Queen Margaret University’s reputation in providing expert academic, scientific and business development support in food and drink, one of the Scottish government’s priority areas, is attracting worldwide attention.

As Scotland’s food and drink businesses grow, the issue of developing the fresh talent to drive the industry forward raises its head, not just in production but in the associated industries that support sales. Now entering its second year, the East Lothian Hospitality and Tourism Academy is a ground-breaking collaboration between academia, local government, secondary schools and a range of employers that offers young people a focused and faster route to highly rewarding careers in the sector. After a successful first year, the model is set for a significant roll-out that will see the launch of a specialist food science and nutrition academy. It is anticipated that up to 1,200 young people will participate in academy training over the next eight years in their chosen field.

A joined-up approach to economic development

QMU’s Food & Drink flagship was further recognised earlier this year when the Scottish Funding Council agreed to finance additional fully funded postgraduate places on a new MSc in gastronomy, which will cover a range of theoretical, scientific and practical issues in modern society’s relationship to food.

Scotland has world class products and services which, when combined with its excellent education and research, have enormous potential to boost the Scottish Government’s international ambitions, especially when linked with effective additional support available, such as Business Gateway, to help SMEs translate research into economic prosperity. Recognising the benefits of a joined-up approach to economic development, East Lothian Council is the first in Scotland to locate its Business Gateway service on a university campus. The business incubation space is successfully used by companies such as The Big Cheese Making Kit, a young outfit with its eye on the global market that has already seen its products accepted by both Harrods and Selfridge’s.

It is clear that the ability to link theory with practice is not just attractive, but real achievement is possible when businesses work closely with academia. And with easily accessible practical development support on hand, Scotland’s food and drink companies should not hesitate to take advantage of near-perfect growing conditions to be found on a modern-day university campus.

• Professor Alan Gilloran is deputy principal of Queen Margaret University, www.qmu.ac.uk

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