Dr Siobhán Jordan brings the worlds of business and academia together in her role as director of Interface. Have a read of Siobhán’s blog to find out more about her fascinating background, why the Interface team are known as the ‘matchmakers for business’ and a Scottish company that has the potential to eradicate fuel poverty. Siobhán will be chairing the Transformational Collaboration – Connect to Grow session at the CAN DO Innovation Summit on November 20 at Glasgow Science Centre.
What’s your day job?
I was the founding director of Interface when it was established in 2005 to bridge the gap between the worlds of business and academia. I lead a team of expert ‘connectors’ located across Scotland, who work with all 19 universities in Scotland, as well as research institutes, further education colleges and innovation centres, finding academic partners for companies in all industry sectors.
What does your business do?
We support businesses every step of the way when establishing an R&D collaboration with a university or other academic partner. This includes understanding and translating the business commercial challenge or opportunity and then impartially searching for the right academic expertise, whether that is a researcher, student, professor or sometimes an entire department. We then make the introductions so that the partners can work collaboratively, learning from and inspiring each other. We are often described as matchmakers for business!
How did you get to where you are today?
Throughout my career, I have worked in the worlds of academia and industry. My primary degree was in industrial biotechnology which was very wide-ranging, encompassing many subject areas from process engineering to accountancy and marketing. Although I further specialised in blue-sky research into an inherited eye disease for my PhD, the principles of working with industry and applying research to solve real-world challenges were of particular importance. Fast-forward a number of years and I transitioned from heading up a cellular biology research group to enabling early stage technologies from Scottish universities to be commercialised through Proof of Concept funding support. It was then a natural progress from enabling spin outs from universities to supporting companies access specialist expertise from universities and colleges to scale and grow.
What has been your business’s approach to fostering a culture of discovery and innovation?
For me leading teams to have clear objectives, partnership approaches and turn challenges into opportunities have been fundamental to success.
Our core values at Interface are:
• Achievement-driven, tackling tomorrow’s challenges today and working to get it right for our customers
• Approachable – we are a small, friendly team, always ready to listen
• Committed to our customers’ needs in finding the best collaborative partnership to achieve solutions
• Creative – we take our customers on a journey, letting them explore exciting new ideas through collaborative adventures
• We have integrity, constantly striving to uphold the highest standards. We are impartial, open and fair in all aspects of our service
• We are committed to improving and developing ourselves by empowering each other to be our best
• We are passionate and strive to transform possibilities into realities
In your opinion, what is the most exciting development in innovation in the past five years?
The development by Sunamp Ltd of sustainable heat batteries which store energy as heat which is released on demand for hot water or to warm buildings. The potential to eradicate fuel poverty is huge – housing association residents in Scotland have reported that they have saved significant amounts of money and benefited from warmer homes. We matched the company with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry in their early years of development to identify the optimal material to store and release heat thus making the product a reality.
What three key assets make Scotland a distinctive and world-class place to invest in innovation?
Since choosing Scotland as my home 25 years ago I have been impressed with:
• The world-leading research across all the academic institutions.
• The willingness to collaborate – and the competitive edge, when required.
• The connected ecosystem of business support organisations. We all talk to each other regularly and this helps businesses at different stages of their journey.
Looking to the future, what technology challenges and opportunities do SMEs face?
The pace of technology adoption – what is best for different businesses and how can it be implemented in this business quickly?
How technology can deliver global opportunities no matter where you are based – Scotland is on a world stage exporting to all corners.
What are the barriers (real or perceived) to accelerating innovation performance in SMEs and how can they be overcome?
We are living in a rapidly changing world with such an uncertain political environment that this is having a knock-on effect for business planning. Businesses say that lack of time and resource to search for the right academic partner stops them from looking in the first place. Also, not knowing how to work with a university prevents some businesses from taking this approach, with concerns about intellectual property rights when collaborating. Our free, impartial service has helped hundreds of organisations to become more competitive enabling them to increase, maximise their export potential and ultimately, become more sustainable.
What advice do you have for aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?
When it comes to partnering with academics, keep an open mind – the expertise which could help a business best may not be in the same sector, and could in fact be a discipline that has not occurred to the business. We have matched cake manufacturers with hyperspectral imaging experts, and aerospace researchers with high performance bicycle chain manufacturers, with impressive results. Businesses tell us that the expertise they thought they needed wasn’t, in fact, what they chose in the end.
Do establish intellectual property rights from the start. It is essential to have a discussion about whether ownership will be with the business or academic institution. The Intellectual Property Office has a free online guide to help with the basics of IP and we have developed free, downloadable templates to help agree IP, which all universities in Scotland have agreed to use.
Don’t stop with the first academic collaboration. Keep looking around your business to see what else could benefit from academic input. Better waste disposal? Quicker processes? Improved products? As they say, two minds are better than one, and you never know where a new collaborative partnership might lead.
And finally… you’re having a dinner party and you have to invite an entrepreneur, an innovator and a creative, dead or alive. Who are your three guests?
My first guest would be serial technology entrepreneur Andrew Bissell, chief executive officer of Sunamp Ltd. His desire to make the world a better, greener place is so inspiring. It has been a pleasure to work with him over the years. Also around the dinner table would be Marie Curie, the most inspirational innovator in science. Finally, the creative would be the comedian Dara O’Briain who could inspire us with stories from his many voyages.