By David Noble, visiting fellow from Southern Cross University, Gold Coast Australia

Whilst researching the role ‘soft skills’ – I call them ‘collaborative competencies’ – play in the success (or otherwise!) of research collaborations between university and industry partners, I spent time at the interface offices over the last couple of weeks talking to Interface clients, from both the commercial and academic worlds. But let me take a step back before I really begin.

University-industry collaborative (UIC) research is the foundation stone of the innovation agenda in all the OECD countries, and a growing number of countries in the developing world. UIC research generally has one of two objectives. The first is to tackle intractable problems (academics used to call them ‘wicked’ problems) such as climate change, social inequality, healthy ageing, and pandemics such as obesity and diabetics. But the second, and growing, objective is to enhance the economies of nations by generating innovative products and solutions to technological challenges. There are some well-known examples of this. The Cochlear Implant was a product of UIC research, as was disposable contact lenses.

So UIC research is widespread, and government policy makers have high hopes that UIC research will deliver the modern-day equivalent of the steam locomotive, the desktop computer, or the Apple iPhone. However, it is true to say that collaborative research doesn’t always produce the goods. There is no doubt that it can produce spectacular innovative outcomes, but expectations and reality are often but distant cousins. Too many governments (including my own) throw money at a group of researchers in the hope that they can collaborate successfully. But the research tells us that somewhere between 40% and 80% of projects fail to meet at least some of their objectives, and many fail outright.
The selection criteria of most government research funding programs tends to focus upon the research credentials of the principal investigator, whether the proposed project fits in with current government policy objectives, and/or whether or not the industry partner is willing to cough up their share of the project cost, either in cash or in-kind.

Enter Interface: the Interface model is of particular interest to me, because it operates on a totally different basis to the run-of-the-mill UIC models. Interface’s bespoke, facilitated methodology seems to me to overcome many of the weaknesses of other programs. By carefully matching up industry partners who have identified a problem or a potential innovation, with a university research team that is at the peak of its game, many of the collaboration problems can be dealt with at an early stage, increasing the possibility of a successful outcome. If issues do arise during that collaboration, what may have been an insurmountable problem without support and intervention, becomes a mere bump on the road, with Interface’s experienced staff able to facilitate solutions to problems.
So what have I learned from my week in Edinburgh? One observation is that Interface bridges the cultural gap between commerce and academia. Research tends to be methodical, structured, and works on very different timeframes to that of the commercial world. Bridging this cultural divide, and helping partners negotiate it, is an important role played by Interface.

Another early observation from my research tells me that one of the important roles Interface plays, through the Scottish Funding Council’s Innovation Voucher programme, is providing access to funding for the research team to not only develop proof of concept for their project idea, but, and perhaps more importantly, prove that the team has what it takes to work successfully together. Some of the projects involved in my interviews have gone on to bigger and better funding opportunities, which would not have been possible without Interface.

Finally, Interface talk about ‘sticky relationships”, and these have been evident in my interviews. Some businesses have discovered that working with researchers gives their business the ability to differentiate themselves in the market, or create spin-off projects from the original vision. They have discovered that Interface’s deep knowledge of the Scottish research landscape enables them to facilitate bespoke relationships based on the particular issue that a business needs investigating, not just once, but in some cases multiple times as new issues arise.

I’ve really enjoyed my time in Edinburgh, and have been impressed with the professionalism and dedication of the team. I look forward to carefully analysing the data I have collected, and gaining fresh insights that might inform university collaborations back in my home country.