By Professor Donald MacRae OBE, member of Interface Strategic Board.
When I first sat down to write this article, there was no lockdown, COVID-19 was not at pandemic level and the daily business of Interface was continuing as usual.
However, a few weeks on, much of what I wrote then is just as relevant now.
As a Board member of Interface, the organisation which forges valuable relationships between businesses and academics for research and development, I had just taken part in a discussion on the role of businesses in driving innovation.
It was prompted by a presentation from Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, and author of the Muscatelli review into the impact on the economy of the higher education sector. It sat alongside an equivalent review into the college sector, The Cumberford and Little Report, exalting the good work of further education establishments on Scotland’s economy and society. Both reviews called for a “national mission” to drive innovation, to make Scotland among the most innovative economies in the world.
We all have our part to play – this is a collective effort of Team Scotland - and never more so than now when we are in the midst of a crisis.
Businesses are at the heart of innovation, and the development of new products, services and process keeps them a step ahead of competitors, both domestic and overseas. We have seen this during the COVID-19 crisis, however it is not about having a competitive edge now, but of doing every conceivable thing to help in the battle against an unseen opponent – distillers making hand sanitisers, manufacturers making personal protection equipment and companies partnering with university teams to share their knowledge and access specialist facilities to research future treatments and develop vaccines. The response has been impressive and leaves no doubt about how innovative, adaptable and inspirational our businesses and academics are.
Our institutions are the engines of knowledge and growth and businesses are the drivers of that growth. Brought together, businesses universities and colleges can really power ahead, making significant impacts on society and economy.
To give just one example, a couple of years ago, a company supported by Interface spoke at the Interface Strategic Board to help us understand why they had collaborated with academics. What was said really stuck in my mind.
Highland Galvanizers and Colour Coaters, which applies coatings to everything from steel sculptures to roadside barriers, collaborated with a Glasgow Caledonian University graduate to address the problem of pinholing – when tiny holes appear in the paint. By finding a solution, the company saved £70,000-£100,000 annually.
Apart from the ongoing cost savings, having a technical researcher in the business questioning how and why things were done, led to other employees adopting a new perspective of scanning the operation for improvements, which has ultimately increased performance and productivity.
Geoff Crowley, Development Director at the company, said that innovation is now embedded throughout his company, with all staff encouraged to share ideas to improve processes and products as an integral part of their job.
As Geoff put it: “Call it innovation, if necessary, but actually it’s survival. Do things differently, better, for less, using less resource.”
That is already happening in many companies across Scotland as they adapt and diversify and is a valuable message for re-building, reconstructing, reimagining and reigniting our businesses and the economy.
Anyone can identify efficiencies or how to make improvements – and linking with our world-leading institutions to businesses can help reach workable solutions.
The Scottish Government-convened Advisory Group on Economic Recovery issued the findings of its review on Scotland’s economic recovery in a Covid-19 environment on 22 June, focusing on the period after the immediate emergency created by coronavirus has been addressed. Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland called for an “education led recovery”.
One of the challenges set down is to transform acknowledged world-class research into comparable levels of development, and, in turn, large-scale commercialisation.
“Our universities are the envy of many around the world. We must protect them but also leverage them to greater effect; we must transform acknowledged world-class research into comparable levels of development, and, in turn, large- scale commercialisation.” – Benny Higgins, Special Adviser to the First Minister on the Scottish National Investment Bank and Member of the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland, who led the Advisory Group.
Enabling productive partnerships between businesses and world-class research in Scottish Universities is in the DNA of the team at Interface and we are well placed to rise to the challenge set by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery.
Read more about how Interface supported Highland Galvanisers and Colour Coaters in our case study.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Herald.