Interface has made a name for itself over the past decade as a master matchmaker, introducing businesses to academic expertise. Since its inception in 2005, it has facilitated hundreds of collaborations between innovative projects and Interface’s 23 research partners across Scotland.
Of every 100 inquiries it takes forward, 92 receive an expression of interest from a university or research institution, which is certainly a success rate to be proud of.
With social responsibility in the spotlight, the impartial broker is seeing more and more inquiries from charities and businesses operating a social enterprise model.
“We have always been inclusive in terms of reaching out to all sectors,” says director of Interface, Dr Siobhán Jordan.
“I think it’s fair to say that in the early days the perception was that the universities could just support science, engineering and technology.
“Over the first three years we really were about breaking down some of those perceptions but it was about year five  that we really started to see the interest from third sector and social enterprises.”
Jordan says the team’s work with such organisations is hugely important on two levels.
“One is the fact that there is no doubting that social enterprises contribute a lot to the economy and I think secondly it’s the demonstration of university research being able to have not just an economic return but also a societal benefit,” she explains.
“That might be helping patients with dementia feel more included in the community or helping the rehabilitation of stroke patients.”
For the vast majority of the businesses Interface works with, an academic collaboration would not have been possible without a helping hand.
“For a business looking into the universities, they can be quite daunting places with lots of high walls and many, many different doors,” says Jordan.
“Lots of companies would certainly find it quite intensive in terms of resources to even begin to understand how they can find that relevant expertise.” In some cases, it’s just knowing where to look, and that might not be in the first place you think of.
Interdisciplinarity is a strong theme in many of the connections established through Interface.
“The matches aren’t always in the most obvious part of the university,” says Jordan.
“For the companies that we work with, 71 per cent will be collaborating with a different academic discipline.”
That’s certainly the case with Peebles-based specialist software company React2. Its research into the efficacy of its speech and language therapy rehabilitation software has involved working outside IT with a life sciences department.
Aside from financial gain, the societal benefit of partnering with third-sector companies appeals to university researchers.
“They can see the impact of their research not just resulting in pounds, shillings and pence, but also being able to have a legacy of impact to society,” says Jordan.
Within the universities, student start-ups are continuing to adopt social enterprise-style models, with a lot of community-based trust projects coming to the fore.
“I definitely think that with organisations like Social Bite, and with a lot more acceptance through the media of the credentials of these companies, it has created a kind of awakening to the idea that it is OK to show that your product, or your whole business model, has actually got good corporate social responsibility credentials.”
In the case of some of the companies which have benefited from Interface’s service and connections, they aren’t third-sector organisations per se. Instead, they might have a product or service which almost unintentionally helps the community.
Jordan points to Andrew Bissell’s heat source company, Sunamp, which, although not a charity or social enterprise, has developed technology which is being deployed in social housing schemes.
“For us, we have certainly seen a sea change in the last year between businesses that are thinking more about the positioning of their social responsibility,” says Jordan.
“We are seeing greater awareness and ability to want to do something to improve the community rather than accept the status quo.”
Founded by Warren Bader in 2011, Plan Bee was created to help reverse the worrying decline in the UK bee population.
It allows landowners and organisations to highlight and increase their sustainability credentials by adopting a honey bee colony, which in turn produces unfiltered and cold-pressed honey.
Plan Bee wanted to explore the provenance of its honey and find out whether it has the same health and antiseptic qualities of premium manuka honey.
“Scottish heather honey is as good as manuka honey so we wanted to try and explore how we marketed that,” says Bader.
Interface initiated two projects with two separate universities.
A team at Glasgow University tested the nutritional value of heather honey, while Dr John Isaacs from Abertay University undertook a full analysis of the potential benefits accruing from the adoption of QR codes to help track the provenance of the honey.
“That led me on another journey with Heriot-Watt University and I was able to use one of their masters students to help me develop our mead,” says Bader.
The latest eco-innovative product to join Plan Bee’s range is Honeygar – a honey and apple cider vinegar concoction which can be used as a salad dressing and is known to have various health benefits.
“I wouldn’t have thought about working with academia at all. Interface was good because they could give us a steer towards who would be the best person to work with.
“It’s like having a different type of mentor.”
Edinburgh University was the first institution to express an interest in collaborating with React2 after Interface made the introduction.
The Peebles-based specialist software company develops speech and language therapy rehabilitation tools for adults and children suffering from brain injury and trauma.
Owner Dean Turnbull recognised the need to investigate the mechanisms underlying stroke patient recovery using computer-assisted home therapy. It led the company to a successful project with SINAPSE, the Scottish university research pool for brain imaging.
“It was fantastic because Interface enabled an SME like us to work with research which otherwise we would not have been able to, simply because we did not have the resources to do it or indeed the contacts for the relevant higher education institutions,” says Turnbull.
“We have the preliminary results coming through from the brain scanning project and they are showing that React2 is effective in terms of its therapy of cognitive impairment.
“That’s adding clinical efficacy to what we are doing and that’s really important from a PR and marketing perspective.”
Working with Edinburgh University has led React2 to collaborate with Queen Margaret University and the company is in the process of completing two new apps which aim to help people who have problems with communication.
Trellis provides support, guidance, training and representation for over 370 gardening projects which help disabled and disadvantaged people improve their health, skills and quality of life across Scotland.
The organisation wanted to make its resources readily available, on more platforms and in every location, to anyone who could benefit from them, which is where Interface was able to help.
“We were finding it difficult having to open up five Excel spreadsheets to do small transactions and we could see that having everything in one place would let us do a lot more, a lot more quickly,” says head of operations and development at Trellis, Fiona Thackeray.
“Ultimately what we wanted was something that people could update easily through the website because the gardeners out in our network are not necessarily sitting in front of a computer all the time.
“We have projects right across Scotland from Shetland to Dumfries.”
Interface introduced Trellis to the school of computing at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), which was able to investigate a cross-platform database-driven collaboration solution, which would improve connections between people working in different parts of the country.
“We are now within a few months of people being able to log in and change their own data on a simple form,” says Thackeray.
“It has been a lot of work but it was the right thing for us and we would not have known about it, if it wasn’t for Interface.”