Siobhán Jordan: Scottish industry and academia must work together for the future

SCOTLAND'S reputation for innovation and technology could prove to be the country's strongest defence against the downturn, and the world of academia is well placed to drive positive changes through collaborative working across all sectors of industry.

Increasing importance is being placed on innovation, and Scotland is leading the way, according to a Universities Scotland report, detailing a 12 per cent increase in the value of research contracts taking place between Scottish universities and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It's vital that academia continues to capitalise on the value of these opportunities and has the commercial awareness needed to deliver successful partnerships with the business sector.

Despite the economic climate, there has never been a better time to advance products and services for company directors considering investment in research and development. Supporting new and sustainable links between businesses and higher education – and the subsequent economic growth – is one of the Scottish Government's key strategic priorities. Scotland possesses world-class research and knowledge across many disciplines; therefore it is crucial that business and academic sectors work together to aid economic recovery.

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Scotland's universities and research institutes are home to a wealth of knowledge and expertise and hold the solutions to an extensive range of business challenges, however obscure. Whether a business is looking to develop an additional service that it does not have access to in-house, or looking to overcome a significant problem, at any stage of a product development, there is help out there.

Collaborations between business and academia are not a new concept, but this was previously considered a domain for larger businesses. SMEs are increasingly becoming more aware of the benefits that an academic partnership can offer. And with SMEs accounting for 99 per cent of all enterprises and 53 per cent of jobs in Scotland, there are opportunities for universities and research institutes to work together to deliver productive partnerships.

Businesses operating in all sectors can benefit from academic input to tackle the challenges and issues they are faced with. Projects can cover a wide range of areas, including product design, manufacturing and commercial development.

A recent survey highlighted that over 50 per cent of members of the Federation of Small Businesses believe they will introduce new or improved products or services to their business in the next 12 months. The incentive to innovate is there with government-backed funding schemes available to help offset the costs, and the benefits of collaborative working are clear on both sides. Scotland's universities can support companies to drive forward innovations that will ensure Scottish businesses maintain that all-important competitive edge.

Together, business and academia can deliver the technology, knowledge and insights to make products faster, stronger, safer and more efficient; to break into new markets; and, ultimately, to impact on the bottom line and increase profitability.

Working with businesses provides an essential insight into industry that academia needs to help inform future teaching, research and to assist in bringing new skills to key industries.

Scotland has a strong and dynamic business community and cutting-edge research under way in its universities and research institutes. It must play to these strengths. Forging robust and lasting links between Scotland's business community and academia has the power to shape a strong economy for the future.

• Dr Siobhn Jordan is a director at Interface.