Interface has emerged over the last decade as a successful broker in matching the skills and expertise of Scottish higher education with innovative businesses needing specific help to grow. Here, its director Siobhán Jordan reflects on how Interface’s own development has been mirrored by the growth of Scotmas, in discussion with its managing director Alistair Cameron. From its base in Kelso, Scotmas provides water treatment solutions around the world – including working for the Qatar World Cup 2022.
David Lee (DL): How did the relationship begin?
Siobhán Jordan (SJ): In the early days of Interface, in 2007, we got senior Borders business people together for a round table discussion, including Alistair’s father Derek Cameron, who was then in charge at Scotmas. We’ve worked together for almost a decade now.
Alistair Cameron (AC): We have always been innovation driven and tried to differentiate ourselves within the area of water disinfection and hygiene. Competitors tend to be large companies like Siemens and GE with international R&D resources.
We pride ourselves on being of a similar standard and a little bit nimbler, with cutting-edge R&D. In every customer interaction, we have to get over the credibility gap with excellent technological solutions which minimise environmental impact.
SJ: Fundamentally, we save companies time and resources by allowing them to tap into universities’ expertise, using us as an impartial broker.
We saw that Scotmas was all about innovation and a good fit. We started with identifying expertise for efficacy testing of their work in treating bacteria and as we developed a trusting relationship, it was about future planning and developing better systems.
How were things different then to now?
AC: The universities were not slick at making connections and Interface had a big role in joining up academia with business and demystifying the process. It was pretty ground breaking.
Now universities are marketing their skill sets to the business market much more aggressively and Interface is the impartial broker. Simply speaking to one university will not necessarily get a company access to the skills they need.
SJ: If Scotmas had to knock on 20 to 30 doors to get the specific assistance they needed, it would be a real burden. We can speak to them, create a brief and share it through our excellent channels into different university teams.
Those universities with the capability then have to decide if they also have the capacity – and then move to early stage discussions about a programme of work.
Feedback from the universities can also help to identify which projects might not work and need to be refined. Sometimes, it’s really helpful to be told what not to do; it can save significant time and money.
AC: Sometimes those conversations take you down a different path than you expected. That’s happened twice to us.
What was the Scotmas proposition for Interface?
SJ: At first, there were two main areas: the chemical reaction of generating chlorine dioxide as a water treatment and how to maximise efficiency in producing it.
As Scotmas was looking at global markets, it needed to make products effectively in territories where it might want to get in and out quickly. [The company worked in Iraqi oilfields, for example.]
We took the proposition to universities and Heriot-Watt came back saying it could look at production and systems. That ultimately led to the secondment of an individual from the university to the company through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership.
AC: A small initial inquiry led to a meaningful, formal interaction involving a member of staff. Our aim is always to develop a lasting relationship.
We keep abreast of the industry and look if universities might be able to help in specific areas.
What has Interface offered that you couldn’t have done in-house?
AC: Firstly, support with technical problems. Sometimes, you see a problem on site but do not necessarily know the cause and require academic brainpower.
Secondly, access to facilities. There are millions of pounds worth of facilities in Scottish universities and Interface has created an online marketing platform [launched last month] which puts high-end facilities and equipment within your reach which you could never otherwise afford.
That access to specialist equipment and the breadth of expertise among individuals and teams is a major benefit.
SJ: Scotmas is the classic company in terms of not knowing what facilities were out there, with specialist academic teams wrapped around them.
Firms might just need specialist facilities for one project, or just a couple of days, so it’s hard to make buying the piece of equipment cost effective in-house.
How has Interface made a difference?
AC: New products and innovation have driven the growth of Scotmas and I cannot think of any new projects where we have not sought the advice of Interface and the Scottish academic community.
Without Interface, we would not be in the position we are in and would have had to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in our own equipment. We’d have needed to search the world for a specialist consultancy to find the expertise we needed.
The company has grown from 15 people when we started working with Interface to 42 [mirroring Interface’s growth, from 3 to 22, in the same period].
We now work across Europe and in the Middle East [including water treatment for 20 per cent of the city of Doha ahead of the World Cup], south-east Asia and southern Africa.
Where there is water, there is Scotmas. Water scarcity is a massive issue around the world and we want to grow global markets.
My dad, who is 78, has just been to India looking at village-scale water treatment systems. State and national governments want to provide infrastructure to deliver clean water because of the long-term healthcare savings. We are also working on treating well water in Botswana.
There are real opportunities where a lack of water limits GDP growth, like the Middle East. They have ministries of water who spend a lot of time looking for the best technology, so we tend to focus on these areas to lead our product development. One of our engineers has been working closely with the National Water Utility Company of Saudi Arabia.
In the Middle East, they look for the best quality – and in Doha, we were lucky enough to be seen as the best.
We have installed a chemical injection system with sophisticated monitoring systems so the water is disinfected ahead of distribution but keeps the chemical content down.
The interaction with Interface is very important in growing the business across all these areas.
How has the culture changed over the years – and what next?
AC: It’s now very difficult to think of starting a firm without taking advantage of what’s available in the universities.
SMEs are challenged more by banks about why they are doing things themselves rather than getting help from universities.
Scotmas has six projects in our innovation pipeline, around water treatment and disinfection, at different stages of technological readiness, and the relationship with Interface will certainly continue. Our focus on innovation remains crucial. We have two staff doing Scottish Enterprise’s Deeper Innovation course as we want to embed innovation at all levels of Scotmas.
I had the privilege earlier this year of attending a course at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] on innovation-driven businesses – and lots of the best practice taught there is already embedded in Scotland through Interface.
SJ: Australia is very keen to look at what we are doing successfully in Scotland.
Not every firm is such a spectacular success as Scotmas, but we have positive stories across many different sectors – including chemical and life sciences, food and drink and tourism.
We want to get more SMEs engaged with universities because there are tremendous benefits for both sides.
What would you say to other businesses about Interface?
AC: If your business is driven by innovation, there is no harm in looking for assistance from the academic world.
It’s a very low-impact inquiry – initially just a sheet of A4 – and it allows you to check what’s out there.
There is lots more potential in Scotland for exciting businesses to make better use of the academic community via Interface.
SJ: Scotland has great quality and depth in its academic community. In the past we have not been so good at translating that into commercial success, but it is seen as much more of a government priority now. The future looks exciting.
THE ENVY OF THE WORLD
When Interface started in 2007, with three people working out of university offices in Edinburgh, there was a growing recognition that academia and businesses needed to work together more frequently and more effectively. Often there was a desire on both sides to do so, but how to enhance engagement was a sticking point.
For businesses, the barrier was finding the time and resources to trawl the wealth of academic expertise, and then knowing how best to approach them. For the academic institutions, it was finding the right businesses to work with, and at the right time.
Interface – now a thriving, established organisation, match-making businesses with its 23 academic partners across Scotland – has established itself as a key part of the solution.
People are at the heart of Interface and its team of experts located across the country provide local support allowing businesses to meet them quickly and easily. Hundreds of businesses have already made academic partnerships a key element of their innovation strategy.
Interface has forwarded more than 3,200 searches to academic partners, resulting in almost 1,300 collaborative projects from kitchen table success stories, to long-established brands seeking to explore new products or processes.
Many more businesses could discover the benefits of partnering with academics to develop products, services and processes: securing and creating jobs, increasing turnover; and reaching new markets.
One challenge facing Interface is how we remain people-centred, while reaching more businesses.
The dual barriers of lack of time and resource remain for many businesses, which is why Interface is still important now as ten years ago.
Also, we’re living in an age when universities are keen to demonstrate impact on entrepreneurship and employability – working with and making a difference to industry is a crucial element of that.
In monetary terms, Interface has put back an estimated £70 million into the economy through new products, processes or services or greater efficiencies leading to cost savings.
Now with the Scotland CAN DO innovation agenda and a dedicated cabinet minister for the economy, we can be assured that Interface will long continue to play a vital role in Scotland’s future economic prosperity.
Scotland’s Interface model is the envy of the world, with interest shown from many other countries and organisations and its role in the innovation ecosystem – true testimony to its strength and success.
• Sir Pete Downes is chair of the Interface advisory board