Reach for research

Small companies have the most to gain from applied scientific research but often don’t know it, says Colin Mackechnie.

Scientific research, when applied correctly to commercial problems, can help cut costs, increase yield, remove uncertainty and reduce waste. The government supports one of the world’s best national programmes for research through the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). It also recognises the need to convert research into industrial impact so it offers ways for small businesses to access world-leading facilities and expertise.

However, more small companies could take advantage of these opportunities.

Few understand the benefits of applied science and even fewer know how and where to access expertise. A recent study by the Federation of Small

Businesses showed that less than 4 per cent of small firms had used a government-funded business support service.

It is critical that more is done to highlight the role of UK facilities and capabilities, the ways to access them and the small businesses that have approached national research institutions with problems and found answers.

Many more of the UK’s four million SMEs must take advantage of public-funded science or their ability to support economic growth will be limited.

The experience of measurement science in the UK is a good illustration of the wider issue. Using measurement science to solve key manufacturing problems can make the difference between product success and failure. It can help companies select the right materials and predict issues on production lines so product failures are identified before they reach customers. It can also be used to model manufacturing processes and prevent companies spending money on ‘good’ ideas that won’t work in practice.

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) houses 600 of the world’s leading measurement scientists and a wealth of specialist measurement instruments.

There are well-established programmes through which SMEs can access this expertise and equipment, some part-funded by government. If small companies have a technical problem, it is likely a measurement scientist could assist.

There are places firms can go to seek help, and prescribed channels to do so.

However, only a small percentage of the SME community knows facilities such as NPL exist and even fewer have attempted to access them. This stems from three false perceptions about national scientific institutions.

First, small companies assume that access to world-class science is expensive. This need not be the case. The DTI’s Measurement For Innovators (MFI) programme, run by NPL and the other UK measurement institutes, offers access to expertise through free consultancies (time limited) or part-funded joint research. NPL can even arrange for its scientists to be seconded to SMEs and help solve a specific technical issue.

Applied Nanodetectors, a small firm developing sensors that quickly identify chemical and biological substances, began working with NPL through the MFI programme last year. Access to NPL’s equipment and scientists helped accelerate its product development process. It is now close to proving its design is substantially more accurate than other, similar technologies.

NPL also runs CEMMNT, an open-access centre for micro and nano-technologies part-funded by the DTI. It offers some of the UK’s strongest expertise in this field to anyone who wants help to solve an industrial problem.

Second, most SMEs believe national scientific institutions are better prepared to help large organisations. But most have a strong track record of success with small firms and many run programmes specifically designed to help SMEs.

NPL’s own Measurement Services Programme has helped more than 2,500 small companies access expensive measurement equipment for a fraction of what it would cost them to buy. The programme helps small companies write bids so they can win funding from Regional Development Agencies to use specialist facilities. It even helps small companies meet their obligations for national and industrial standards.

Last year it helped Micro Materials ensure it could successfully achieve ISO accreditation. The company’s managing director, through his connection to NPL, has since been invited to take part in one of the DTI’s national working groups. This has allowed him to help steer national measurement research, which could be relevant to the industry in which his company operates.

Finally, there is a perception that large institutions are difficult to access. In fact, most facilities are very user-friendly and have a dedicated helpline offering a single point of contact for anyone seeking advice. The NPL Helpline channels requests to scientists, ensuring enquiries reach the right people. This makes solving a problem as simple as picking up the phone and asking a question.

The UK has one of the most impressive pools of science expertise in the world. A large percentage of it is held at publicly-funded science institutions, working with the government to make research applicable to business problems. At the same time, a vast number of SMEs need specialist advice and access to equipment they cannot afford.

The lack of interaction between these two sectors means good companies with great ideas may never see them realised. Often, they are not aware that working with government scientists to solve technical problems can be straightforward and cost-effective. Without a more effective way of communicating the opportunities available, national research institutions cannot help small businesses use science and research to succeed.

Dr Colin Mackechnie, knowledge transfer executive at NPL