Project Manager Mhairi Begg has been with OGIC since our launch in 2014. We asked her about the changing innovation landscape, her tips for innovation success, and some project highlights.
How has the innovation landscape in Scotland changed since 2014?
There is now a bigger ecosystem of support for O&G technology developers, from early-stage R&D to prove a concept or prototype, through to field-trialling and commercialisation.
That’s a good thing for companies and universities alike. It’s leading to more new tech ideas being funded, and to multiple benefits for the industry – for example, access to better performing materials, the application of tech from other industries, and the development of new tools for new frontiers.
How do you see OGIC’s role in that landscape?
Looking at the companies and projects I’ve worked with at OGIC, a key element has been our support for R&D to prove a concept or develop a prototype. This is really important.
In effect, by pairing them with universities, OGIC is supporting an extension to companies’ in-house R&D teams. University researchers can fill gaps in their knowledge, bring the latest thinking on new materials or processes, or provide independent evidence that a concept works. This expertise can be game-changing for a company.
In addition, we often see company-academic collaborations continue after the OGIC project has finished. This has happened in quite a lot of cases, and it’s very satisfying.
Also satisfying is the fact we’ve seen quite a lot of new-start developers come through our doors since the downturn. Great examples have been Phoenix and Iron Ocean – we’re proud to have supported them.
Which projects have been your highlights since 2014?
I’ve done project management on well over 35 projects now – too many to name individually.
Given the stage of innovation we support, these projects haven’t necessarily involved large investments or long time periods: our projects usually last just 4-6 months. But our support speeds up development time. It bridges gaps, gets the relationship working between the company and the university, and very often leads on to a more substantial second phase of collaboration.
So, that’s a general highlight for all ‘my’ projects.
But any that especially stand out?
If I really have to pick out some specific highlights … one of them has to be the project between Aubin and Heriot-Watt University to develop a solution for rigless abandonment, which they’ve called XClude.
That’s a good example of a project that started with a good idea in the company, the university got on board with the challenge, and in a short time the concept was proven to work.
Both sides took a lot of learning from the lab-based experiments, and this has benefitted future phases. The solution is now at field trials, and has support from the OGTC, so it really shows OGIC playing its part in the innovation ecosystem, and the ecosystem working well for companies.
Another highlight was a project with Hydrasun on its Interventor project. It was my first OGIC project, the partnership with University of Strathclyde worked well and the project is now commercialised. So that’s a strong example of what can be achieved in a relatively short space of time.
The Iron Ocean project is another favourite – because it’s game-changing and another great example of university expertise at its strongest. That involved two schools at Heriot-Watt University – Engineering & Physical Sciences, and Textiles & Design.
And Weir Group did a project with Heriot-Watt on 2D nanomaterials, which offers huge potential for the industry.
We’ve also got some other very good projects underway or in the pipeline – some of them follow-ups to previous collaborations – which I’m excited about.
What’s the role of OGIC project managers in supporting projects?
We help to structure the project to meet the company needs. We introduce the universities to the companies, help in the selection process, and also have the idea screened by our independent industry panel.
Good communication is central to my job, making sure we’re all clear on who’s doing what and when. The main thing is to have a clear plan and manage expectations, specifically what’s in scope and what’s out of scope.
Plans may have to change – this is research, after all – but the most important thing I’ve learned is to make sure there is a very clear view of what’s being delivered at the end: what does success look like?
What does this add for businesses and universities?
The transition we manage is from initial idea to something tangible: it could be visual like a 3D printed prototype, or a detailed report showing a test-plan with successful results. This gives the company something to take to investors, it helps hugely to have a university verification of the technology.
At the same time, the university is demonstrating industry impact from its research. It’s a win-win.
In a nutshell, what’s your advice for academics and businesses thinking of working together?
Communicate; keep everything simple and clear; develop in phases to keep the project manageable; and remember that collaboration takes effort. Working with new people with different ideas is great for a project.
Based on your experience at OGIC and working with oil & gas, what do you think are Scotland’s strengths and challenges in innovation?
We have great ideas in companies of all sizes, a huge talent pool, and excellent university research teams experienced in working with industry. There is no shortage of good ideas or people to develop them and prove them.
And the challenges?
Technologies are emerging and changing so quickly, and it’s inherently risky to try to develop good ideas into reality. Companies need to be able to experiment, develop their ideas, test them, but getting investment for this is an issue. Plenty of people will buy the product or technology when it’s available, but co-funding development is not so easy. Hence my point earlier about the importance of OGIC supporting R&D that leads to proof of concept or a prototype.
There are other challenges for SMEs too – the innovation landscape in the UK is not easy to navigate. And they may not know how to find the right academic partners to support them.
But the development of the oil & gas innovation ecosystem in Scotland – in which OGIC has a unique role – is addressing these challenges, so there’s definitely cause for optimism.