Interface Food and Drink team photo

It's a tribute to all involved to see so many innovative projects and ways of working, writes Helen Pratt

I’ve worked in and with the food industry for a good many years now – more than a woman of a certain age cares to admit to, but these last five years have been very different to the rest of my experience.  When the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) developed the idea that was to become Interface Food & Drink (IFD), they hoped to get academia more engaged with this industry, and they charged us with developing projects of sufficient scale that they would have economic impact.

We didn’t get there straightaway, but when looking back over the funded projects, there are many which represent genuine collaborations along the supply chain and not only interdisciplinary but also inter-institutional partnerships. Some will have economic impact in their own right, but others will take time and further projects – projects which will now happen because of the initial introduction to the idea of working with academic expertise.

One of the main beneficiaries will be the environment – the drive to reduce waste or to turn it into something of value has sparked a great number of projects. And while universities have collaborated with the industry for a long time to develop new products, we’ve seen the introduction of new processes which increase efficiencies, reduce costs and contribute to sustainability – all hugely important to the continued success of the industry in Scotland.

The whole concept of innovation is difficult. We bandy the word around a lot, and yet so often we hear from companies that they really don’t know what it means or that it’s up to someone else “to do”; I’ve worked for companies who had special committees responsible for it – as if only that group of people could come up with innovative ideas. 

One of the most exciting developments to witness has been the growth of collaborative projects, and at IFD we’re very proud of the role we’ve played in encouraging, fostering and facilitating this development.  We’ve seen competitors work together for the greater good of the industry sector. We’ve witnessed large groups of companies of hugely varying size from a wide variety of sectors work together to tackle resource efficiencies and skills essential to survival. The resulting projects may not have been “innovative” but the way of working certainly has been, and it’s a legacy the whole of IFD should and will be proud of.

It’s also been fascinating to see just how much Scotland’s universities have to offer and to appreciate the access industry has to this treasure trove. For small companies, which make up most of the food industry, lack of resource is a major factor inhibiting innovation – their customers are the number one priority, after all, so this can create a mis-match in the speeds between which companies and academics can make progress. However, this is not a barrier to collaborating and it’s a tribute to all involved to see so many innovative projects.

Because of the wide range of types of business and solutions we’ve come into contact with, we’ve also been able to introduce academics from different fields and different universities to each other, hopefully broadening their own horizons and enriching the landscape to everyone’s benefits.

Scotland may be a village, but it’s certainly the case that not everyone knows each other or each other’s business! Over the course of the last five years, we have seen companies innovate in all manner of ways. Sometimes it’s been about the way they have worked with competitors or supply chain partners, sometimes it’s been the introduction of new technologies or the application of older technologies in new ways. Sometimes it’s been high tech, more often than not, it’s low tech, but it’s always been interesting and it’s always demonstrated just how dynamic this industry is.

With the benefit of hindsight there are, of course, things I would have done differently, but looking back at nearly 100 projects funded by SFC with more than £1.2 million, I’m very proud of what’s been achieved.


This article first appeared in the Friends of the Scotsman