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Fostering a culture of innovation

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Dr Siobhán Jordan, Director of Scotland-based Interface, writes ahead of tonight’s closing ceremony of the European Innovation Summit, which falls on the occasion of St Andrew’s Day.

Expressions like “dial it up” and “changing gears” are being used frequently these days when it comes to improving the country’s economic performance, and greater collaboration between business and universities is seen as a key factor in achieving this.

From business leaders to UK and Scottish Government, the message is clear – our universities, research institutes and colleges have a vital role in supporting business innovation.

When Jo Johnson, the UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, announced a new barometer for measuring knowledge exchange last month (October) he acknowledged that there were good examples of universities engaging with businesses and communities to make the most of their knowledge and research, but added that the UK Government hoped the new KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) would encourage more commercialisation of research and development, adding that “the system needs to find a new gear”.

The Scottish Government is working with the enterprise agencies, Scottish Funding Council, Universities Scotland and Interface to improve innovation and knowledge exchange performance‎. Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, visited Interface in September and met with one of our businesses (Scotmas) which has learned the value of collaborating with academics long-term. Mr Wheelhouse welcomed the role that Interface plays in connecting business and academia enabling small and medium-sized enterprise to benefit from academic insight to drive profitability and commercial success.

At a CBI conference on business-university collaboration last month (October), Hugh Aitken, CBI Scotland Director, urged the audience, which was a mix of business and university representatives, to “move the dial ourselves”, rather than relying solely on government action to boost productivity. Innovation was one of four main driversto achieve a step change in company growth and productivity.

So, there is no doubting the willingness for change to turn Scotland into a more prosperous, leading innovation nation, however there are some obstacles to overcome first.

Scotland is home to an estimated 344,000 small and medium-sized enterprises, which are a hotbed of new ideas, creativity and desire to disrupt the norm.

They play a crucial role in contributing to the economy and we have worked with hundreds of SMEs – 39% have less than 10 employees and 56% employ under 50 people.

We know that one of the biggest challenges is persuading the many businesses which do not undertake research and development to consider it as part of their strategy and embedding innovation into their company culture. Lack of money and time are often given as reasons for smaller companies not undertaking research and development.

Taking the first step to working with academics can be daunting. Smaller companies with a limited number of employees and tight margins can find it challenging to look objectively at what they are currently doing and identify potential areas for improvement.

In September we published an economic impact report based on businesses and academics who have worked with Interface over the last ten years. The figures show that business-academic projects supported by Interface have enabled Scottish businesses to generate £64.2 million gross value added (GVA) annually for the Scottish economy, supporting around 1,060 Scottish jobs.

Looking ahead, the economic impact attributable to Interface could increase to more than £195.3 million GVA/year, supporting almost 3,500 jobs, if future expectations of the businesses are realized.

Several of the companies interviewed for the report had experienced transformational effects on their business culture as a result of their interaction with Interface. Many added that it had been a catalyst for deep and long-lasting relationships with academia and that they were far more likely to tap into academic expertise and funding opportunities as a result.

One of these companies is Dunnet Bay Distillers, based in the far north of Scotland, on the famous North Coast 500 route. Director Martin Murray had this to say about his company’s ongoing engagement with universities and colleges:

“I would encourage any SME to engage with Interface to see what opportunities are out there for their business.  It’s really important to do this at the business planning stage as there could be opportunities out there even at the very early stages of development that you won’t be aware of.

“Working with academia is part of my business thinking now.  I would previously have thought it was too expensive or too difficult.  Interface has broken down that mental barrier.”

Interface is often described as a matchmaker, with people at the centre of all that we do; from the passionate team at Interface, who aim to “get it right” for our customers, and the business people we are supporting in their goals, to the academic experts at the cutting edge of research and learning (five Scottish universities are ranked in the respected Times Higher Education list of the top 200 worldwide).

Turning knowledge and ideas into value for society – the tagline of Knowledge4Innovation, organisers of the 9th European Summit on Innovation – chimes with Interface’s ambitions as a connector and to Scotland’s quest to be a leading innovation nation. Fostering a culture of business innovation is an ambition worth celebrating as we raise a glass (of Scotch whisky, artisan gin or vodka) this St Andrew’s Night.


Follow the closing ceremony of the Summit, being held in the European Parliament this evening, on Twitter using #9EIS – and follow @innovatorsmag and @k4innovation 

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