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'We offer businesses chance to grow'

16 August 2011

EXCLUSIVE Dr Siobhan Jordan of Interface tells FP Express it's a free, impartial service that aims to stimulate innovation and encourage companies to consider academic support to help solve its business challenges

Could you describe what Interface does in your own words?
Interface, the knowledge connection for business, is a central hub connecting businesses from various national and international industries to Scotland's 25 higher education and research institutes. It's a free, impartial service that aims to stimulate innovation and encourage companies to consider academic support to help solve its business challenges. Our highly skilled team can quickly establish company requirements whether it's to solve a particular problem or help business development activities. We then identify a range of potential academic partners and help match the appropriate academic expertise to support the company in moving the business forward. We also offer ongoing support, including progress monitoring, guidance and contractual and fund-raising advice. Interface helps companies operating across a range of sectors, from food & drink to financial services, offering huge benefits for businesses and academia.

When and where was the organisation founded?
Established in Scotland in 2005, Interface is funded by The Scottish Funding Council, and also receives financial support from the Scottish Government under the SEEKIT programme to support the participation of the research institutes. Although Interface offices are based in Edinburgh we're active in helping businesses around the rest of Scotland and the UK. We also have a team in west Scotland and we've just opened an office based in Inverness with dedicated personnel to cover the Highlands and Islands helping SMEs to prosper through links with Scotland's universities, colleges and research institutes. As a partner in the Campden BRI led consortium delivering the Food & Health Innovation Service funded by Scottish Enterprise, Interface is helping bring Scotland's expertise to help businesses harness exciting market opportunities in this sector.

How did the recession affect Interface - if at all?
We found it challenging like many others, however, in terms of the service we offer, we realised fairly quickly companies faced with reevaluating their business in order to survive the recession could directly benefit from the right academic partnerships. In some cases we offered a real lifeline in helping take the business forward. Businesses began to realise the potential benefits of collaborative R&D to their company could be immediate and far-reaching in developing new products, processes or services.

How else do you help companies?
We also help companies source funding schemes, which in the recession offered a crucial source of finance and provided businesses with the chance of future growth. Since we started in 2005 we've gone from strength to strength and although the downturn slowed the momentum, we're growing year-on-year and have now dealt with more than 2,623 enquiries, resulting in 372 collaborative projects from Interface and academic partner contributions.

Can you provide an example of how you’ve helped a business?
A good example of how we've helped a business, is Macphies of Glenbervie. The Scottish food manufacturer is working on its fifth academic partnership through assistance from Interface. The groundbreaking work being undertaken will help deliver improvements to Macphies' end product as well as increase efficiency in the manufacturing process.

Are you finding the recovery is having a positive effect on your business?
It's encouraging our growth is increasing in line with the country's recovery rate. Interface is continuing to play an integral part in helping companies of all sizes and sectors collaborate with academia as well as growing innovation in Scotland. An independent report has revealed more than £24 million is being added to the Scottish economy every year through successful business and academic collaborations and that since Interface was set up in 2005, 47 jobs have been created through partnerships, and that an estimated £7.5 million additional GVA has been generated for Scotland.

How much business does Interface do with the food and beverage industry?
About 10% of the companies we've supported to date are from the food and beverage industry. The projects we’ve facilitated are wide ranging, from improving the shelflife of oatcakes with Nairns to developing testing the feasibility of pasteurisation of fruit juices using advanced microwave technology.

How important will the food and beverage sector be to you in 2011?
Interface plays a key role in supporting the research and innovation needs of the food and drink industry. This has been reflected in the recent announcement by The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) of the Scottish Universities Industry Innovation Network for Food and Drink. Interface will be key in developing this multidisciplinary collaboration of researchers in supporting them to respond to industry requirements from waste to supply chain management.

Does Interface have a view on 'lean manufacturing' and if so could you explain what it is?
With costs of energy and raw materials rising businesses are increasingly looking at ways to optimise production by removing waste and implementing enhanced flow in business processes. As waste is eliminated quality improves while production time and cost is reduced. Some academic partnerships Interface has facilitated are looked at improved efficiencies from harnessing energy to better waste management, for example Burgons, a crab processing firm that set up a partnership with academics at the University of Glasgow to test the feasibility of alternative uses for crab shell waste as a whelk bait.
In another successful academic partnership, the firm, Gill Orde in Catering, improved the methods for tracking its ingredients through the development of an innovative online software programme that documents the food safety management system.

Can you explain the importance of sustainability and 'green' issues to the company?
Interface supports a broad range of companies which are seeking to improve their sustainability through better use of resources such as energy, water and maximise value from waste. University of Edinburgh hosts the programme on behalf of all the 25 academic partners. The University of Edinburgh has distinguished itself as a leader in energy and sustainability practices Ahead of other universities in the UK, Edinburgh launched an 'environmental initiative' in 1990 that evolved into a comprehensive energy and sustainability program.

Have these efforts had any affect?
This program's efforts have dramatically improved campus energy efficiency, saved money and slashed carbon dioxide emissions. A major component of the sustainability agenda has been the introduction of three campus 'energy centers,' or combined heat and power installations, an investment of £12 million since 2002. Widely recognised for its outstanding commitment to energy efficiency, the University of Edinburgh was honored in 2004 with a Green Energy Award for Best Environmental Initiative, bestowed by Scottish Renewables, an association representing Scotland's renewable energy industry interests.

Could you tell us more about your personal background in the sector?
I've led the Interface programme since it was established in 2005. I hold degrees in Biotechnology and Process Engineering from Dublin City University and a PhD in human genetics from Trinity College, Dublin. Previous posts include senior researcher at the Medical Research Council, Human Genetics Unit and applications manager for the Proof of Concept Programme, Scottish Enterprise which supported leading edge technologies being commercialised from across the Scottish universities. My wide-ranging background provides an excellent platform to support a range of food and drink companies from breweries to ingredients manufacturers that have a diverse range of requirements from engineering to chemistry from life sciences to logistics.

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