SKEA 2017 panel
Professor Pete Downes

Professor Sir Pete Downes, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dundee and Chair of Interface Strategic Board

There was a time when Scotland brimmed with ingenuity. Many of the ideas and inventions that have shaped the modern world can be traced back to the hotbed of genius that was the Scottish Enlightenment. 

I believe Scotland still has ingenuity - and lots of it. It’s just that sometimes we don’t know how to get the best out of it. In Scotland the ability of businesses to assimilate and apply new knowledge is lower than in many other OECD countries. Business expenditure on research and development here is less than that for the UK as a whole and considerably less than European levels. The beacon of light, however, is that Scotland’s universities perform extremely well in terms of research and development and, in fact, are out-performed only by a very few countries in the world.

So, what we’re involved in at the moment, under the banner of the Scottish Government’s economic strategy, is a concerted effort to connect universities to businesses and to create a future for Scotland in which innovation abounds. Interface is a vital component in this effort and at the recent 2017 Knowledge Exchange Awards we celebrated some of the many successes achieved so far. However, our keynote speaker and others also reflected realistically on how much there is still to do.

I believe that some of the biggest barriers to progress are differences in culture. This is evident in the way that many talented young Scots appear not to value entrepreneurial qualities; nine out of ten attendees at the University of Dundee’s entrepreneurial events are non-Scottish. It also manifests itself in the way universities and businesses can be divided by a common language – which is where Interface’s ability to translate between the two communities can be invaluable in getting business-academic teams to identify common goals. We need to create a culture in which universities and businesses naturally interact and we definitely need a culture in Scotland that respects and values risk.

Interface works to change culture by bringing together growing businesses and academics and one way of supporting this is through the simple and very effective device of innovation vouchers to fund collaborative projects. Interface administers Innovation Vouchers on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council to encourage first time partnerships between a company and a university or college. They are designed to get people talking to each other and step into the unknown for many, particularly businesses for whom research and development may be an alien concept.

The good news is that in a recent Interface survey of follow on innovation vouchers, 100% of SMEs said that they were satisfied with their experience of working with academics. That is a significant finding because it means that these relationships once begun are likely to continue. My own experience in the pharmaceutical industry convinces me that the more businesses and academics engage with each other the more appetite there is for engagement. Once a door to academia has been opened, it can be the beginning of a long-lasting journey with the business teaming up with different academic disciplines in different universities.

What’s exciting just now is that there is a new momentum behind the idea of businesses and academics coming together to create new products, new services and new jobs. We’re beginning to understand once again that the fusion of the academic and the entrepreneurial is a good thing. In the past this quality has given Scotland and the world colour photography, paraffin, radar, antibiotics - that list of innovations we all learnt at school. Innovative people still abound in Scotland and their visions are beginning once again to find fertile ground.

06 April 2017