By Dr Siobhán Jordan, Director, Interface

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up” – so said the US writer, Oliver Wendell Holmes.

This is very true of the environment in which Interface operates, matching business to universities, research institutes and colleges to create innovative products, services and processes.

We have seen the results of this “meetings of minds” approach many times, where the commercial partner has a challenge which presents a new research topic or application of a technology or opportunity to trial a university specialist facility in a new way. There is often a “one team” approach in the collaborations we have been involved in, where ideas spark and the beginnings of highly productive relationships take root when we introduce business to academic experts. One-off projects can open the door to a stream of collaborations spanning several years, and it is this transformational impact on a business and its sector which is the ultimate prize for all involved.

Besides the obvious business benefits such as developing new products or services, improving processes, increasing turnover and expanding into new markets, sharing knowledge in this way brings results far beyond what either partner might achieve on their own. The development of talent and skills for both the business and academic institution is immensely valuable. Small-scale feasibility studies can morph into an opportunity for enhanced student learning through a PhD or Knowledge Transfer Partnership, which in turn can lead to full-time employment.

Bringing academic thinking to real-life industry challenges is one of the benefits of the 25 food and drink companies which are part of the Resource Efficiency Industry Advisory Group, brought together by Interface, Zero Waste Scotland and Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Scotland in 2012.

The group (which includes bakers, brewers, salmon producers and soft fruit growers, among others) reap the benefits of pooling resources to tackle the challenges of the sector around environmental sustainability, which aim to contribute to the ambitious revenue target of £30bn by 2030 set by Scotland Food & Drink.

One of the large companies in the group carried out a feasibility project with Edinburgh Napier University to recycle heat generated from a food drying process. The business expects to save £600,000 a year as a result, and the results have been shared among the group members to explore the viability of adopting the same process in their own businesses. 

In another multi-party project, six companies working alongside University of Aberdeen shared data to enable a deeper understanding of what their value their waste could generate through anaerobic digestion or other processes. This led to the Scottish Salmon Company winning an Interface Challenge competition to undertake more in-depth work with the university assessing viability and return on investment for converting their waste effluent into energy and by-products. The company now have the evidence to make an informed commercial decision on investing and integrating the processes across their Scottish operations, which has saved them considerable resource, both staff and financial.   

Pooling resources on a smaller scale can bring tangible results as well.  The Gorbals Community Group wanted to recreate a clock tower and fountain which had been removed in the 1930s to make way for the trams expansion, however rebuilding the landmark proved to be difficult since all original drawings and measurements were lost after its demolition.

The plan took an important step forward when two businesses in a wider group successfully applied for Innovation Voucher funding (a funding source which Interface administers on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council to encourage first-time partnerships between business and universities and further education colleges). It enabled them to draw on the expertise available at Glasgow Caledonian University’s School of Engineering and the Built Environment to produce a replica of the clock tower and fountain using innovative 3D laser scanning techniques and photogrammetry data.  

Voyages of discovery often start with a problem which is preventing a company from flourishing or a community project from taking flight, so it makes sense to tackle them with shared knowledge and resource from more than one source.

To end on another quote, in the words of George Bernard Shaw: "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

What ideas can we exchange to ensure they take flight?