If you haven’t been around the policy end of universities in Scotland, there’s an important part of their mission that you might have missed. In addition to research, teaching and producing highly skilled graduates, reducing the impact they have on the environment and increasing the number of students they take from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Scottish Funding Council tasks them with “supporting innovation and strengthening collaboration with industry”. And that’s not a space that academics and universities, traditionally, have felt comfortable operating in.
That is not to say that there are not excellent examples of universities engaging with industry. Every one of Scotland’s nineteen higher education institutions has several success stories. But they are being fed a clear message by the Scottish Government through the SFC: you need to do more and you need to do better.
And that presents entrepreneurs and start-ups with a valuable opportunity. Connecting and working with universities is a clear win-win, where the industry partner can take advantage of world-class researchers and facilities and the university fulfills a critical part of its mission. Let me tell you how it is that Andrew Wodehouse, Jose Hernandez and John Shiell of the University of Strathclyde saved me months of effort and thousands of pounds.
I was already happy to work with universities, having worked in research administration for both Edinburgh and Stirling. I could speak their language and knew of the collaboration imperative mentioned above. So when Thea Ni Lionnain of Scottish Enterprise told me that she knew someone who could work with me to develop my prototype invention, I jumped at the chance. Through Innovation Voucher funding from Interface, I was able to enlist the expertise of Strathclyde’s Design, Manufacture and Engineering Management (DMEM) to work on my brainchild. I knew what the application would require, but even then we had the assistance of the Research and Knowledge Exchange Office who, in a matter of days, turned my back-of-the-envelope wishlist into a fundable application. Interface readily approved it, and work started, with John doing much of the research and design. A month or so later, we had a prototype, a series of tests, detailed drawings and a very grateful client.
That’s the situation in Scotland, but what of the rest of the country? Arguably, Northern Ireland, through InvestNI, has the best funding and highest quality support for startups and SMEs. And with only QUB and UU in the Six Counties, it’s much easier to focus. Entrepreneurs like Allan Nelson of For-Sight are quick to sing the praises of the level of help for businesses across the water.
HEFCE do not have the luxury of a small, excellent ecosystem to package up and send out to industry. Instead, they have kept funds centrally (Connecting Capability Fund) and experimented with an online platform to connect industry and academics (konfer.online). Konfer is still in alpha form, but it is perhaps the most exciting online tool for finding academic partners at present.
Might I have got there in the end by myself? Perhaps, but it would have taken me many more months and a lot more trial and error. As a startup approaching suppliers, I had confidence in the drawings and details that I can send out to them. Before, I was mocking things up in MS Paint and asking “will this work?” Now, I can send them .STEP files for components and be afforded an instant boost of credibility.
Throughout this process, I have kept hold of my intellectual property and secured a patent. By working with DMEM, I’ve saved time and money, gained confidence and had valuable advice.
We have some of the best brains in the world in our universities. Why not pick them?