Our recently published annual review for 2018-19 gives a flavour of the many faces of knowledge exchange, where businesses and academics collaborate for research and development to prove early stage concepts or gain valuable information to deliver a competitive edge.
The review is peppered with case studies highlighting different ways in which small and medium-sized businesses (and organisations) have been connected with universities and colleges by Interface to progress ideas into something tangible. Often, the resulting product, process or service has a powerful impact on the environment, society or the economy, or all three.
I would encourage you to read the full review, which you can find at interface-online.org.uk/news/annual-review-2018-2019 One of the standout statistics is that 100 per cent of companies surveyed were extremely satisfied or satisfied with the support from Interface. This is due to the passion, diligence and knowledge of the team which make up the sales force for Scotland’s universities, research institutes and colleges. This demonstrates that we are making a difference, matching businesses to the right academic partners for groundbreaking projects.
We know that many more companies and organisations could benefit from our impartial (and free) service and we are working hard to inspire as many small and medium sized enterprises as we can to the art of the possible. Academics – whether researchers, PhD students, groups of undergraduate students or professors – are ready and willing to share their knowledge and expertise.
A great example of how our matchmaking service has brought benefits to a company comes from one of my colleagues, business engagement manager Shelley Breckenridge. She has supported Scotland’s largest independent manufacturer of beds, headboards and soft furnishings, Elite Contract Furniture, over the past four years, with ongoing advice and access to expertise which cannot be bought off the shelf.
What started as a short-term project with a student from the University of Strathclyde’s design, manufacture and engineering management department (DMEM), after a referral from Scottish Enterprise in 2015, led to a nine-month industrial challenge regarding manufacturing methods and materials used in Elite’s mattress production.
A year later, a second nine-month project saw a student from DMEM investigate business processes to improve scheduling agility. In 2019, a two-year knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) was agreed – a recent graduate from the university will become a KTP associate with the company.
Building on Scotland’s drive towards a circular economy, Elite is focusing the KTP on launching a commercial subscription-based furniture package to the hospitality and care industry, allowing the company to take control of the furniture and furnishings they sell whilst extending the product life cycle.
The overall objective is to make quality products that last, challenging the current throwaway society ethos. The KTP will also Elite product design by investigating ways of extending their lifespan and how they can be dismantled easily and effectively at the end of their life. Elite’s production director, Greg Winston, said: “Another key advantage we have found is that it brings fresh pairs of eyes to the business allowing you to see new solutions to problems you might not have even known existed and new ideas that you may not have even considered.”
As Dr Anup Karath Nair from the University of Strathclyde, pointed out: “The University of Strathclyde believes in being a place for useful learning and knowledge transfer partnerships, like those with Elite, play a significant role in ensuring that DMEM upholds that motto.
“Such industry-academia collaboration helps ensure that research and subject matter expertise at the university are aligned with the needs and demands of British businesses and the wider UK economy and society.”
As in the case of Elite, when a business, organisation or entrepreneur and an academic team find a mutual interest, they both reap the rewards – the university or college gains valuable industry knowledge, which makes the teaching experience more realistic, while the business gains new ways of thinking, fresh ideas and input and a resource they possibly wouldn’t otherwise be able to access to solve a business issue.
Greater support for these deeper, longer-term partnerships is a priority for Interface. Feedback from companies we have supported showed that half of them plan to continue working with their academic partner once they have completed an initial project. There are a number of ways of achieving this, as illustrated in the Elite case study, KTPs being one vehicle for deeper collaboration. In many cases, KTP associates have gone onto work permanently for the company, which recognises that keeping the knowledge built up during the collaboration will continue to bring benefits.
In this uncertain world there is much to celebrate and so in February 2020, we will once again host the Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards, celebrating groundbreaking and innovative partnerships between businesses and academics.
The deadline for applications is 5pm on 29 November. More information can be found on our website at interface-online.org.uk/scottish-knowledge-exchange-awards-2020
Laura Goodfellow, head of business engagement, Interface.