The post-Brexit silver lining: how working with SMEs could provide a springboard to export

Originally posted in Business Leader Magazine

Far from Brexit creating a sense of doom and gloom for SMEs wanting to export, leaving the EU could provide opportunities to sell to emerging markets. That, at least is the view of two economists who are setting up a project to bridge the gap between SMEs and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which provide a link between local authorities and businesses.

Catherine Cai, who is senior lecturer in Strategy and International Management at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) said: “We are trying to see the silver lining of Brexit and there a lot of opportunities for SMEs to export to non-EU countries, but they need support.

“The LEPs provide a network for SMEs to meet and learn from each other and this is very important, because most of these firms don’t have experience of exporting to countries like China or India.”

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Along with colleague Dr Rekha Nicholson from Newcastle University London, which is leading the project, Cai is in the planning stages of an activity involving work with two LEPs.

Cai says SMEs in the UK often think locally and either tend not to think about exporting or, if they do, invariably consider European countries. Exporting to emerging markets like the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is still quite a new idea.

By developing working practices with the LEPs and providing workshops in the South West, the economists plan to help businesses think about how to penetrate and position themselves in these new markets. Their knowledge will also help companies understand the logistics of exporting and how to protect their intellectual property rights.

The project is set to begin at the end of 2017 and, initially lasting one year, will focus on two industries: creative and manufacturing.

Reducing bad breath: how 20 years of research have helped us better understand halitosis

Reducing bad breath: how 20 years of research have helped us better understand halitosis

A researcher at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has devoted her work to a subject that some might find unpleasant or embarrassing: bad breath. Over the past two decades, Dr Saliha Saad and colleagues have tried to pinpoint the mechanisms behind oral malodour, also called halitosis, and how best to reduce it.  

A link between the biofilm on our tongue and oral malodour

While bad breath can be the result of eating strong-smelling foods like eggs, a meat morsel caught between the teeth, or gum disease, these lead only to temporary oral malodour. Dr Saad’s research examines more long-lasting, chronic halitosis in people who, despite living a healthy lifestyle with good oral hygiene, experience the symptom on a regular basis.

We humans carry 1.5kg of microbes, also called human microbiota, on the inside and outside of our bodies, found on our skin, in our intestines and in our mouths. At the back of the tongue is a biofilm, a collection of millions of bacteria within a thin, robust protective coating (which the bacteria excrete). Although researchers are still trying to identify all the possible causes of halitosis, they believe this film of microbes is responsible for oral malodour. “Our theory is that the more bacteria on our tongues, the higher the instance of smelly compounds found in our breath,” says Saad.

Through her research with Professor John Greenman, Dr Saad has learned that people with oral malodour may have it their entire lives. As a result, Saad and her team have worked with Colgate Palmolive, Philips, GSK, Procter & Gamble, Healthcare International, Boots, GABA and other oral hygiene companies to help them develop more effective toothpastes, mouthwashes or cleaning devices. “Brushing and flossing can reduce bad breath for a certain amount of time, but the challenge is to cut bad breath for longer. Our job is to show these companies whether their product has a longer lasting effect on oral malodour,” explains Saad.

Testing products that counteract bad breath

To try to achieve this, the researchers test anti-microbial samples the companies send them using a biofilm perfusion system. This involves gently scraping volunteers’ tongues to obtain the collection of microbes, before injecting the resulting liquid onto cellulose, a material that best represents the surface of a tongue. A fluid almost identical to saliva is then slowly drip-fed onto the biofilm to emulate the environment (including pH and temperature) found in a human mouth.

Once the bacteria reaches a steady state, the scientists inject controlled amounts of the unlabelled oral hygiene sample onto the microbes. “These products are invariably a type of toothpaste but we often don’t know what active ingredients they contain,” says Saad. The process of reduction in bacteria and smell is then measured over time.

Following this in vitro testing, the scientists conduct clinical trials by asking some 150 volunteers to test toothpastes or other oral hygiene products such as mouthwashes. The intensity of their malodorous breath is assessed both before and after the treatment using a SIFT-MS machine. The device uses a technique called ion flow-tube mass spectrometry to ‘smell’ the breath by providing a breakdown of the gases contained within it. “Generally the most odorous gases are the sulphides,” explains Saad.

Because machines and other measuring devices can sometimes be inaccurate, Saad herself also smells the volunteers’ breath. As a qualified organoleptic judge, she can categorise the odour by intensity and unpleasantness according to a set technique and scale. The participants are then provided with a toothpaste or mouthwash to test, with Saad checking their breath in the subsequent hours. Test results are subsequently analysed and sent on to the oral hygiene companies concerned.

UWE Bristol is unique in that it provides a course to train scientists to become organoleptic judges with Saad as their trainer. By the end of the five-day course the professionals, who are from all over the world, learn to use the sniffing test to diagnose oral malodour and assess the effects of treatment interventions in their own practices.

As for those who suddenly recognise that they have momentary smelly breath, perhaps just as they are about to walk into an interview, Saad proffers her advice for quick remedy. “Gently brush the back of your tongue,” says Saad. “But be careful not to damage it because if you brush too hard you could cause injury and infection.”

UWE Bristol’s biosciences research centre: an overview

TOLENA DORAN 043.jpghe University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)’s Centre for Research in Biosciences (CRIB) is its largest research centre and therefore covers many areas. We caught up with CRIB’s Director Olena Doran to hear some of the highlights and plans for the Centre in 2017.

CRIB addresses a broad range of projects in the main three strategic directions: biomedical, bio-sensing and analytical, and agri-food, plants and environment. “Our strength is in cross-disciplinary research, as technology development doesn’t exist on its own,” says Doran.  “Through this, we focus on research with impact and research that informs teaching.” Although Doran says she is proud of all work going on in CRIB, the scientist highlights some ongoing projects.

Biomedical area

CRIB currently works with over 60 companies and one of its researchers within the biomedical group is Dr Saliha Saad, who works with well-known companies like Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, and Procter & Gamble to help them develop oral hygiene products that could reduce oral malodour. A third of people have bad breath that others can detect (called halitosis). The cause of such malodour is attributed to a community of billions of bacteria knitted together in a ‘biofilm’ on our tongues. Using an artificial tongue, made from a cellulose matrix to which is fed a continuous medium representing saliva, Dr Saad and her co-workers are running trials to test antimicrobial compounds and see how they affect bad breath. To help them achieve this, they also use a complex machine that can detect numerous gases that are thought to contribute to oral malodour.

Bio-sensing and analytical research

While Dr Saad’s research looks to eliminate bacteria, another group of CRIB researchers is using bioluminescent bacteria to develop bio-sensors, devices that use a living organism to detect the presence of chemicals. Dr Elizabeth Anderson and Dr Gareth Robinson have managed to harness the glow-in-the-dark properties of bacteria to help some leukaemia sufferers receive swifter and more effective treatment. Bioluminescence – light emission from living organisms – increases in some bacteria when they come into contact with certain drugs. By engineering an e-coli with a high sensitivity to a chemotherapy drug, the scientists have developed a fast method to test whether the compound is the most suitable to fight acute myeloid leukaemia tumour cells.

Agri-food, plants and environment research

More harmful bacteria could be behind Acute Oak Decline (AOD), a condition that attacks thousands of oak trees in the UK and can kills the trees in four to six years. Professor Dawn Arnold is leading research projects that look to determine whether bacteria is causing AOD and, if this is the case, which one is the culprit and how it infects the tree. So far, the team has identified two previously undiscovered species of bacteria that could be responsible for the tree disease. By identifying genes in the bacteria that allows it to enter the oak tree and cause the disease, the team could find a way of using a chemical to disrupt that function without harming the plant.

Meanwhile, Dr Neil Willey’s work looks at what happens when plants absorb small amounts of radioactive isotopes. How quickly a plant takes up radiation depends on the type of plant, the soil and the isotope. In the laboratory, he and his team grow plants in contaminated soil samples collected from different locations. The research is part of a consortium called TREE that aims to reduce uncertainty in estimating the risk of humans and wildlife associated with exposure to radioactivity. He also conducts research activities in the vicinity of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Says Doran: “His work nicely links to our ambition to include research in teaching and enhance students’ experience.” Dr Willey has also helped organise a summer schools for PhD students in unique places like Chernobyl, where a massive nuclear accident occurred in 1986 at its power plant. In September 2016, the trip was filmed and the video is now available as training material for students. Last year, TREE won a Times Higher Education Award for research project of the year.

As for CRIB’s plans for 2017, Professor Doran says this includes further developing the Centre’s links with industry and other stakeholders. Despite already involving itself with 100 national and international collaborations with universities, research institutions, industry and government bodies, CRIB still wants to expand its reach even further. Doran is particularly interested in developing close links between CRIB and the University’s new Enterprise Zone that provides unique opportunities for collaboration with businesses. “We don’t want to miss an opportunity to showcase our research or to collaborate further with industry,” says Doran.

UWE Bristol & TechSPARK: Showcasing innovation

UWE Bristol & TechSPARK: Showcasing innovation

UWE Bristol has partnered with TechSpark to showcase some of our most innovative technology projects and research.

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In the latest guest blog, we look at Dr Tom Mitchell’s electronic gloves that can be programmed for performing musicians to trigger sounds and virtual instruments using hand and arm movements.

Visit TechSpark’s website to read more about the Mi.Mu gloves and Dr Mitchell’s involvement in the technology.

How a grandfather inspired a fascination for the human mind

How a grandfather inspired a fascination for the human mind

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we look at Anita Gulati’s research on mindfulness and its role in enabling creative, sustainable leadership and re-enforcing resilience. Gulati works at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and is Associate Director of its Bristol Business Engagement Centre (BBEC). She says her grandfather’s story has served as inspiration in her work.

Harbans Lall Gulati came to the UK as an Indian immigrant in the 1920s and hearing about his life has helped Anita Gulati understand why she is so interested in mindfulness and meditation. “Despite working as a doctor in a busy practice in London, every day my grandfather used to close his consultation room door for 20 minutes to meditate. I discovered this recently and it gave me a very strong sense of connection to my ancestors,” says Ms Gulati.

Her aunt, Dr Meira Chand, who recently took up yoga aged 75 ­-­ three years after completing a PhD – is now writing a novel about Harbans. Ms Gulati believes that if there were ever an example of resilience in the face of adversity, it is to be found in the story of his life.

After completing his medical training in the land of his birth, Harbans emigrated to England with the intention of working as a doctor. On arrival, he walked all the way from Liverpool Docks to London and slept in Hyde Park, only to discover that his medical qualifications were not recognised in the UK. He repeated his training at Charing Cross Hospital, and eventually requalified. The colour of his skin, however, resulted in him being shunned when looking for premises in which to practise medicine. This challenge was overcome thanks to a Jewish jeweller in Battersea Rise who let him use part of his shop as a consultation room.

Throughout the Second World War Harbans served the local community, treating the injured and assisting the poor, eventually helping to set up Meals on Wheels (the service that today still delivers meals to those who cannot cook for themselves). He also became involved in local politics, becoming a councillor for Battersea South ­– a rare occurrence for someone from South Asia in those days.

Inspiration from her grandfather and her experience as a sociologist and psychologist has ignited in Ms Gulati an interest to know more about mindfulness, a form of meditation involving focusing on the present moment. “It is perhaps my grandfather’s tale that inspired my passion for the human mind,” says the researcher. Gulati and her colleagues are now exploring why mindfulness seems to help people deal with life’s stresses, how it can sometimes make us more resilient, especially as leaders, and why alongside the notion of leadership, it has become an increasingly important concept.

Three years ago, Ms Gulati attended a conference on the neuroscience of mindfulness and scientific impact, where she met Dr Peter Malinowski after he gave a talk on the mind and meditation. “I have since been collaborating with him and Dr Carol Jarvis (UWE Bristol) to explore the role of mindfulness in compassionate and resilient leadership,” says Ms Gulati.

The three researchers have found that, in today’s uncertain world, the fastest does not always win the race (as shown in Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, believed to date back some 2.5 millennia). This idea seems to have lost currency in contemporary organisations and their research explores the challenge of learning from, and injecting some ancient wisdom into, contemporary organisational settings. “As my grandfather perhaps discovered, stopping to ‘smell the roses’ rather than rushing to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ can impact organisational sustainability and resilient leadership,” says Gulati. “We are exploring how this works and assessing the creative tension that may emerge from this juxtaposition,” she adds.

Making a difference to emergency care

Making a difference to emergency care

Professor Jonathan Benger wears many hats and works long hours. He is a consultant in the Accident and Emergency (A&E) department of a Bristol hospital, overseeing junior doctors and attending to patients. He also works for the South Western Ambulance Service (he helped to found the Great Western Air Ambulance Charity), and is involved with policy and strategy for NHS England. The rest of his seven-day working week involves one and a half days’ research at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

Over the past decade, Benger has helped establish UWE Bristol as a focus for emergency and critical care research, particularly around pre-hospital care. As a result, his and his colleagues’ academic work has a genuine impact on what is going on in the real world and improves the health of individuals.

Managing a patient’s airway after a cardiac arrest

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Professor Jonathan Benger

What work is he most proud of so far? The research study Airways-2, a collaboration with UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol’s Clinical Trials & Evaluation Unit, on how to manage a patient’s airway in the early stages of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. Some 60,000 people suffer a cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating suddenly) outside of hospital in the UK every year, and one of the internationally recognised unanswered questions about this condition is how best to manage the patient’s airway. “Historically we’ve put a breathing tube in the patient’s windpipe, but some data suggests it might be harmful to do so at an early stage, and it is unclear why,” says Professor Benger. Newer devices sit at the back of the throat and provide oxygen, so he and his colleagues are testing the two alternatives to see which approach works best.

“This is a huge trial that people said couldn’t be done because it’s so hard to deliver,” he says, but the researchers first secured a quarter of a million pounds to carry out a feasibility study, before receiving a further £2m to conduct the full trial. This means that as many as half of all patients who have a cardiac arrest out of hospital in some areas of England are likely to end up in the study. The researchers will publish results in 2018, and these could have a huge impact internationally. The Professor believes his team will answer the question of how best to treat cardiac arrest victims at the scene in a way that is likely to change the guidelines for resuscitation worldwide.

Redesigning ambulances for greater efficiency

Another research project close to Benger’s heart is his involvement in the redesign of the interior of ambulances currently used in the UK. Over the years, paramedics have gradually needed more material in the emergency vehicle, with treatment frequently taking place in the ambulance itself. When paramedics are providing care in situ, time can be at a premium and an efficient configuration of medical instruments and drugs can save time, and reduce the risk of an infection spreading.

Professor Benger and his colleagues therefore teamed up with the Royal College of Art to design a new ambulance from scratch. The challenge was to create something within limited space that maximises capacity for treatment and optimises layout. To do this, the researchers ran scenarios in the ambulance to observe how paramedics treated patients (who for this study, were actors). “We redesigned the ambulance and then got another set of paramedics to come in and see how they used the space differently,” says Benger. The team also looked at the spread of contamination around the vehicle using a dye and showed how an efficient layout with dressings and other equipment close at hand, could reduce the spread of bacteria.

Building an ambulance demonstrator provided the team with a springboard to secure funding from the EU to work on a European-wide project. The aim now is to feed this into ambulance design across Europe, encourage mass production and, therefore, bring unit cost down (in England each ambulance currently costs the NHS up to £60,000). Thanks to this ongoing research, the service has already seen some improvements in joint procurement of ambulances in the UK. Other incorporated suggestions from the team’s work include ambulance services placing stretcher trolleys in the middle of their vehicles, which means greater paramedic mobility and access to the patient. “Fewer people going to hospital because you have delivered more treatment at the scene is good for the system,” says Professor Benger.  “If it’s a safer ambulance, then there are lower risks of picking up infections too.”

Enabling people with disabilities: using innovation to provide cycling mobility

Enabling people with disabilities: using innovation to provide cycling mobility

In 2013 Bob Griffin was ushered through the gates of Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. The entrepreneur who set up Tomcat, a company in the south west, was there to collect his Queen’s award for Enterprise in Innovation. The company manufactures trikes for children and adults with mild to severe disabilities, whether learning, visual or physical.

Based near Gloucester, Tomcat is known for its bespoke trikes, the unique design of which means carers accompanying the rider can control the vehicle from behind using a steering and braking lever.

Just a year after shaking hands with the monarch, Bob was looking to design a new wheelchair product called ‘Sunfly’ and was successful in receiving a grant through the University of the West of England’s (UWE Bristol) Innovation 4 Growth (I4G) scheme, which supports SMEs in the South West to develop innovative products.

Inspired by families whose children sometimes became severely disabled because of illnesses like meningitis, Sunfly has multiple purposes. Due to launch in 2017, users can modulate it to allow a child to nap, eat, and sit in different positions. Its clever design means the structure can house various types of specialised seats and can be broken down into separate, easily transportable parts. Sunfly also doubles as a trailer to carry a child behind a bicycle.

The R&D took over a year, as there was an intense focus on safety. “Turning Sunfly into reality was a real challenge, but without UWE Bristol’s I4G funding, it would have been even more difficult and perhaps unachievable,” says Bob.

The story of Tomcat goes back 20 years. Bob’s stepson, Tom, had severe learning difficulties and was keeping the adults awake at night because of surplus energy he was unable to expend during the day. Although Tom had a trike, it was hard to control and so it gathered dust in the shed.

Bob, at the time a Merchant Navy engineer, realised tricycles were very basic. “In terms of blindness, learning difficulties or spatial awareness, there was nothing out there,” says Bob. While on a posting, he used the ship’s workshop to build a system to add onto Tom’s existing trike. Tom and his mother, Anne, were delighted.

Usually Tom would walk for 100 yards and get bored but, thanks to the trike, Anne could control it from behind and he was able to ride up to three miles. “To see him achieve that was quite emotional,” recalls Bob. After a subsequent visit to the school Tom attended, other parents asked Bob to build trikes for their own children.

Two decades later Tomcat products (the firm’s name is derived from his stepson’s name) are as popular as ever. Bob is now developing new products thanks in part to a second round of funding from UWE Bristol’s I4G. The grant is helping with the development of both an adult trike and a semi-recumbent tricycle. The products will target those with mild sight, balance and age-related difficulties, as well as people with profound and multiple disabilities.  A major feature of the new machines will be the way they enable users to get on and off more easily.

The semi-recumbent trike, due for release in February 2017, will be more upright, with higher seating and a straighter back than competitors’ products. Another objective will be to incorporate a swivel, or height-adjustable saddle, on the pedal vehicles.

Of course developing these products has once again presented Bob with a number of challenges, like how to achieve greater transportability with such a large machine. Again, support through UWE Bristol’s I4G programme will help him overcome those issues.

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Bob Griffin, Tomcat, meeting the Queen in 2013

To find out more about Tomcat please visit their website: http://tomcatspecialneeds.co.uk/

KTP Success Story: West Technology Systems

The collaboration between West Technology and UWE Bristol is a fantastic example of the University’s involvement in the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) programme. Since West Technology recruited a graduate through the programme, sales of its fingerprint-detection machines have gone through the roof. Managing Director Ian Harris also says the KTP further boosted the company’s credibility in the forensics world.

Peer pressure beyond the classroom: how social media and online games affect self-image

Peer pressure beyond the classroom: how social media and online games affect self-image

Today social media, especially Facebook, plays a big part in many of our lives. As well as providing a platform for online interaction with others, reading news and seeing an odd video about kittens, it is also shown to affect how we view ourselves – often in a negative way.

Senior Research Fellow Dr Amy Slater works at UWE Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research (CAR), the world’s largest group of psychologists working on appearance and body image. One area Amy looks at is how social media and the internet can affect body image concerns, especially for adolescents and young girls.

Social media: taking peer pressure beyond the classroom

With regard to older age groups, Amy has investigated what it is about social media that is detrimental to self-image in young adults by observing what they do online. By setting up a research page on Facebook and asking the 200 participating 18 and 19-year-olds to ‘friend’ her, she was able to monitor their online behaviour.

Interestingly, the research gave rise to both expected and unexpected conclusions.  For Amy, it is unsurprising that young people spend so much time on social media – often two to three hours per day. What surprises her is the extent users are invested in social media like Facebook.

Before the advent of user-generated content, it was traditional media, press and parents that influenced adolescents. However, social media appears to combine a traditional media element (with advertisements and idealised images of celebrities) with a peer-driven environment (with the opportunity for interaction and feedback). This could go towards explaining why it may be damaging for body image.

The problem is that while adolescents certainly take heed of comments at school, this environment used to end when they left the classroom. Now, young adults are on social media out of school hours and this perpetuates a forum for potentially harming conversations to continue. The researcher says her suspicion is that this continual access could potentially heighten damage to self-image.

The positive side of social media

Of course there are some positives in social media, says Amy. It has transformed what we traditionally perceive as media, except that we generate it ourselves. The media has often presented a very narrow view of what it considers as ‘ideal’ in life, with this ideal unrealistic and unattainable for most. Social media, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for increased diversity in what we see. Vloggers (video bloggers), for instance, have become hugely popular especially as these are ordinary people, and users appear to like this authenticity.

Even very young affected

Amy, who is a practising child psychologist, explains that poor body image can lead to reduced self-esteem, depression, poorer eating habits and unhealthy practices. Research shows the age at which females experience body image concerns has steadily lowered since the 1980s, when initial findings found it was mostly adult women who were discontent with their bodies. Later on, this negative body image was shown to exist among adolescents then, worryingly, in some girls as young as six.

Another part of Amy’s research looks at the sexualisation of females in online games. Along with UWE Bristol’s Dr Emma Halliwell, she has conducted a study on the impact of playing internet games on young girls’ body image and career aspirations. They have found that some easily-available games on the web, such as Dream Date Dress-Up often made girls aged eight to nine express a desire to be thinner immediately after playing.

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Centre for Appearance Research at Appearance Matters 7 (Dr Slater pictured 2nd from left)

The Centre for Appearance Research strives to make a real difference to the lives of people with appearance-related concerns both in the UK and across the world. Click here to find out more about its activities and events.