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The Entrepreneurial Exchange

Business On A Learning Curve

Without the lure of the big brands of the multinationals, owners and managers of developing companies can be hard-pressed to find the skilled staff who form the lifeblood of many businesses. But Scottish entrepreneurs are adept at garnering support - particularly from universities that have turned out to be hunting grounds for talented specialists and new graduates. "The Scots are good at joining up academia with business and have a long tradition of doing so," says John Anderson, chief executive of the Entrepreneurial Exchange, a Scottish entrepreneurs association.

Universities such as Aberdeen and Edinburgh maintain strong relationships with businesses. So does the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, which houses the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, endowed by Scottish tycoon Sir Tom Hunter, offering graduate and undergraduate courses on entrepreneurship.

Other universities adept at providing vocationally oriented courses include Glasgow Caledonian, which has a large business school and supplies graduates for the NHS and other medical organisations; the University of Abertay, in Dundee, which is noted for computer programs; and Heriot-Watt, renowned for its courses in engineering, petrochemicals, brewing and distilling.

A popular way of linking academia and business is the government-backed Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), managed by the Technology Strategy Board. "The KTP is doing well in Scotland," says Alan Hendry, its regional development manager in Scotland. Firms with KTP support have a graduate posted to join them from 18 months to three years and gain funding for their salaries.

"Companies can get help on anything from improving production processes to marketing," he says. About 75% of university staff who work on KTP schemes become permanent employees of the companies they have assisted.

The Glasgow-based engineering company Scottoiler, which produces chain lubrication systems, is involved in its second KTP project with the University of Strathclyde. "The first graduate associate we got is now our research and development manager," says managing director Fiona Thomson. "We have 23 staff and the scheme is a good way for companies of our size to gain people with real expertise."

She has also had success finding graduates through Scottish Enterprise's Graduates for Business scheme, under which it finds graduates for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and funds part of their first year's salary.

While some firms rely at first on universities for finding skilled employees, they adopt other recruitment methods as they grow.

Founded five years ago by academics from the University of Aberdeen, the biopharmaceutical company Haptogen has about 30 staff, nearly two-thirds of whom have PhDs.

"Initially, most of our staff were recruited from the university but now we cast our net wider and advertise in international journals such as Nature and Science," says Ian Broadbent, research manager of the Aberdeen-based firm. Last year it gained a PhD student, Soumya Palliyil, from the University of Aberdeen to conduct research through the KTP scheme. "This helps us expand our technology by bringing in young talent, aids their career by giving them management experience and the university by giving them access to our technology," he says.

In Stirling, Cascade Technologies was founded in 2003, based on emissions-monitoring pioneered at the University of Strathclyde. "Some of our staff were drawn from the university and links are maintained through academic staff who are consultants for us," says business development director Richard Cooper. "We also advertise in magazines and attend conferences where we meet people who may want to work with us."

Internet recruiting also becomes an option as companies develop. "We've built links with universities and have graduate recruitment programmes. But we now advertise online - on our own site and sites such as Jobscene.com and Monster.co.uk," says Graeme Cox, founder and managing director of DNS, an Edinburgh IT security services company that employs 70 people.

At the Edinburgh branch of software firm Axios Systems, global marketing manager Bob Lawson says: "We advertise for people online and use open days at universities, but then applicants go through psychometric testing, peer review, are interviewed by one of our founders and make presentations. Applicants have to want to work here - not just want a job - so we think we make fewer mistakes."

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