Get businesses and academics working together

Businesses are encouraged to consider hosting a PhD or Masters student. Picture: Jon Savage
Businesses are encouraged to consider hosting a PhD or Masters student. Picture: Jon Savage
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Interface builds the bridges, writes Siobhán Jordan

Three announcements last month left little doubt about where innovation fits with the Scottish Government’s future economic focus.

The first, the detailed economic strategy – the overarching framework for how government aims to achieve a more productive, cohesive and fairer Scotland – prioritises boosting investment and innovation.

The following day, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the announcement by RBS about the creation of a new hub combining businesses with business support organisations, commenting that Scotland is a world leader in innovation – “a key way in which we can continue to grow our economy”.

It’s all good news for higher education institutions across Scotland and the SMEs we match to work on mutually beneficial research and development projects.

In fact, the announcements came at the same time as news of three developments in innovation funding.

Innovation vouchers allow SMEs and higher education institutions to work together on projects, with up to £5,000 funding, matched in cash or kind by the business. Earlier this month, the Scottish Funding Council announced an expansion of funding to include further education colleges in the construction sector, as well as James Hutton and Moredun research institutes.

Also announced was a new funding stream for student placements which allows students to build on research work started through a project funded by an innovation voucher.

We are actively encouraging businesses across all sectors to think about how they can tap into the expertise available through hosting a PhD or Masters student.

Creative industries and businesses working in the food and drink sector accounted for almost half the businesses involved in academic collaborations assisted by Interface in 2013-14, with energy, engineering and technology making up around a quarter. Businesses working in tourism, life sciences, agriculture, social enterprises and chemical sciences also collaborated with academic experts on product or service developments, so it really is open to all.

Collaborations ranged from product development and using off-the-shelf technologies already available in our higher education institutions, to ground-breaking research which can impact on an entire sector of industry, and in turn can have a far reaching impact on society

The impact of business-academic partnerships on the economy speaks for itself. As outlined in our last annual report, the 214 collaborative projects which Interface helped forge in 2013-2014 injected £17m into the economy, and created 360 jobs. Looking ahead, by 2018 the contribution to Scotland’s GVA (Gross Value Added) will rise to £80m and almost 2,400 jobs will be created as a result of Interface-assisted partnerships.

It’s not only city-based or Central Belt economies which benefit. Interface works across Scotland and has connections to each and every university and research institute. Academic partnerships with Highlands & Island businesses, for example, contribute £3 million to Scottish economy, with £2.2m staying in the Highlands & Islands.

In fact, 79 per cent of the businesses we have helped have seen an increase in turnover and a growing number have returned to work with academics and researchers.

With good connections in each of Scotland’s higher and further education institutions, Interface is able to identify the expertise and facilities which could help solve business challenges.

There are some fantastic examples of this, from the development of a cascade chute system for the safe, vertical, transportation of materials, to a commercially viable tank-based seaweed cultivation system for the sustainable supply of edible seaweed – both deserved winners of the 2014 Interface Excellence Awards.

Our service is free and impartial and can save businesses a huge amount of time and money when searching for academic support.

However, our research shows that many companies are still unaware that they could work with higher education institutions in the first place.

Obstacles which stand in the way of companies expanding, reaching new markets or safeguarding jobs could be overcome with academic input. We are at a really exciting time for innovation in Scotland and Interface is playing a key part in making sure that businesses know about the benefits of working with academia.

Commercial innovation fits precisely with the government’s vision of making the economy fairer and more productive, resulting in a fairer society.

Siobhán Jordan is director at Interface – the knowledge connection for business