Togetherness is the key to a well-funded future

The Scottish food and drink industry is benefiting from an investment of up to £10.5 million to create and sustain a special net­work of universities work­ing with the sector to meet its research and innovation needs.

The investment was seed-funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) with an initial £2.64 million. In-kind invest­ment and further cash from industry and from trade associations such as Scotland Food and Drink has created a total pack­age that is set to reach four times the original funding.

The aim at the start in 2011 was to help to grow an industry then generating around £9.5 billion a year into one that could match the Scottish Government’s target of £12.5bn by 2017. However, with export sales in 2012 reaching £5.4bn, the industry met the Government’s target early: overall sales raced on to pass £13bn in September 2013. The initial target has now been revised, with a new aim of growing the value of Scotland’s food and drink industry to £16.5bn by 2017.

Keith McDonald, a senior policy officer at the SFC, is in no doubt about the value of the initiative given that its success can be measured on a number of levels. He believes it brought together the best tal­ent from Scottish universities and busi­nesses in a mutually beneficial exercise. The network has not only strengthened and increased global competitiveness of the food and drink sector, but has also sharpened the resources and extended the influence of the academic institutions and the achievements of their staff.

“The investment was designed to un­lock expertise in demand-led projects,” Mr McDonald says, “with the SFC, higher education and industry contribut­ing towards various partnerships, pooling resources and promoting further invest­ment. It was the first attempt of that scale in the food and drink sector.

“That funding will end in July 2016, and with funding for the Food and Health Innovation Service also ending next year it’s an opportune moment to look at les­sons learned, to see where there are gaps and understand where support is needed in future for this sector. It’s an interest­ing time.

“Because there are challenging targets for Scotland’s food and drink sector we need to marry up ambitions for the sector with results. The industry needs the vari­ous agencies and partners to work even more closely together and help each other achieve common goals. There should be no false starts for businesses needing help; they should be able to get same support no matter which agency’s door they knock on.”

The SFC is also funding the national Innovation Centres programme, Scot­land’s flagship knowledge exchange plat­form for growth in key economic sectors. In the food and drink sector, the recently established Scottish Aquaculture Inno­vation Centre is already working hard to release new potential for growth. The centre is building new and effective col­laborations between industry and the Scottish research community, striving to address hurdles to growth and develop­ment so that new businesses can flourish.

The resulting growth in production will bring investment in Scottish jobs, infra­structure and research. It is also intended to reinforce food safety and security and be a positive influence on improving our day-to-day diet in Scotland.

“This is another opportunity to do things on a national scale,” Mr McDon­ald says, “and we’ve just completed the first round of investments. We’re proud to support the Scottish Aquaculture Innova­tion Centre, which has a huge potential to help tackle specific problems such as fish disease and, more generally, to strengthen Scotland’s performance in global mar­kets.”

Other innovation centres – such as those for industrial biotechnology and for sensor imaging systems – also have poten­tial to make an impact on the food and drink sector.

Additionally, the SFC’s standard in­novation vouchers – and the more recent follow-on innovation vouchers – admin­istered by Interface, have proved crucial in providing small and medium-sized enterprises with the help they need for research and development. First piloted in 2009, innovation vouchers help busi­nesses to work with academic partners in Scotland’s universities and are targeted at encouraging new or previously unfunded collaborations.

“The food and drink sector has been quick to see the benefits of engaging with the innovation vouchers scheme, and businesses have come forward in great numbers – and with some fantastic ideas”, Mr McDonald says. “Innovation vouch­ers work as enablers, providing vital seed funding to get good new ideas flowing.

“We want to get the very best legacy we can out of all this energy and forward thinking and we’re currently looking at how we build on such promising founda­tions.”

The Scottish Food and Drink Skills Academy is also SFC-funded, with ad­ditional investment coming from Skills Development Scotland and Scottish En­terprise. Led by Abertay University along with industry influencers such as Scotland Food and Drink and the Sector Skills Council, the partnership shows the im­portance of skills provision as the biggest catalyst to sustaining long-term growth within the sector.

Keith McDonald underlines that it is exactly this kind of collaboration, as part of a strong framework, which will ensure the best success for Scotland’s investment and create a flourishing industry. For the SFC, and for all the agencies involved, continuing to drive forward the food and drink sector not only requires shrewd in­vestment but also a pragmatic approach.

“Things are looking good for the fu­ture,” Mr McDonald notes. “We are at the stage where we will all be able to learn from the past five years, to put what we have learned into practice, to work at be­ing more joined up and to be better part­ners.

“It’s about the various agencies being smarter with the funding we provide, avoiding parallel streams of investment while also encouraging that idea of busi­nesses getting the same support no matter where they go for help. Innovation is cru­cial to the growth of this sector, and the SFC is here to help businesses access the knowledge, skills and resources they need for success.”

  • The Scottish Funding Council works to make Scotland the best place in the world to learn, educate, research and in­novate. Its investments open up oppor­tunities for over half a million learners a year in Scotland’s 25 colleges and 19 universities.