Better links between business and academia

Companies benefit from working with colleges says Siobhán Jordan

Link between business and academia is more than just a name. Picture: PA
Link between business and academia is more than just a name. Picture: PA
Link between business and academia is more than just a name. Picture: PA

INNOVATION can be a complicated business – that is why Interface has been making it easier for businesses and organisations to tap into funding for working with Scotland’s world-class academic expertise.

Knowing where to start, who to speak to and who does what can be daunting, especially if a business hasn’t worked in partnership on research and development with a university before.

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At Interface we connect small to medium-sized businesses to academic expertise through our network of knowledgeable business executives located throughout Scotland. We offer support to SMEs taking the first tentative steps into working with universities to develop innovative solutions to business challenges.

It’s not only universities which can lend that expertise – research institutions and further education colleges are also included in the Innovation Voucher scheme, opening the possibilities yet wider.

Through the Scottish Funding Council, we process hundreds of applications for Innovation Vouchers each year – each one is a £5,000 boost for businesses, partnering with universities, colleges or research institutions, to develop products, services or processes. In fact, over 950 Innovation Vouchers have been issued since the scheme was launched in 2009, amounting to over £4.5m.

We have seen all kinds of ideas being tested, technology developed to a business’s specification, exciting new product launches and moves into international markets as a result of businesses willing to give working with universities a go.

Often, we find that businesses who work with academics for the first time through an Innovation Voucher go on to work on other projects with the same or other universities,

Bright Red Publishing is a multi-award winning independent publishing company which develops and produces high quality study guides for the new National 4, National 5, Curriculum for Excellence Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications. They collaborated with Edinburgh Napier University to create a unique on-line Digital Zone to support students and teachers during a time of immense educational change in Scotland.

The company, wanting to produce the very best resources for Scottish students, was looking to support their publishing plans with on-line support across a number of subjects. Although the company had the expertise to create and tailor the very best possible content, they did not have the experience to develop the digital strategy required to fully capitalise on the work they had done.

Bright Red Publishing approached Business Gateway, who referred them on to Interface. After working with Bright Red to develop their initial brief, we put out an enquiry, searching through all of Scotland’s universities to find the right expertise. Reviewing the resulting proposals from the universities, Bright Red felt that Edinburgh Napier University had the extensive expertise and support to get their digital project off the ground. The collaboration was supported by a £5,000 Innovation Voucher.

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The original aim of the project was to create a prototype interactive testing system to support the new qualifications introduced in Scottish schools in 2013. The project achieved this and much more besides.

Building on the success of their original collaboration, Bright Red Publishing and Edinburgh Napier University applied for, and received a Follow-On Innovation Voucher for £20k, which the company matched in cash. This allowed the success of the first project to be broadened out to include a wider range of subjects, creating innovative web-based materials to reinforce textbook learning.

Since The Digital Zone went live almost two years ago, more than 25,000 Scottish students have registered and feedback from both students and teachers has been excellent.

In recent months we have been working to ensure that applying for Innovation Vouchers is easier, starting with the application form itself. We’ve created a step-by step guide to applying for the funding, including a flowchart showing the processes and timescales involved.

A frequently asked questions section has been introduced to ensure that businesses and organisations know what to expect from them and their academic partners, and to understand the timescales involved – both of the application process and the project itself.

This latter point of managing expectations is extremely important and can be key to satisfaction levels at a project’s conclusion. Feedback from the business community tells us that different expectations can exist on timescales and the scope of work to be undertaken, so we hope that by having clear information online, people will establish partnerships with a better understanding of timescales and deliverables from the outset.

We hope that in “keeping things simple” many more businesses will include tapping into the world leading Scottish academic expertise in their strategy. Who knows where it might lead?

• Siobhán Jordan is director of Interface