In St Andrews, as at most renowned universities, research is an indispensable part of academic life as well as an important employer for the local economy.
It was with alarm, therefore, that university administrators and lab staff learned of the decision last June by Sasol UK, a South Africa-based energy and chemicals company, to end its research work at the University. This withdrawal, completed by the beginning of December, brought to a close fifteen years of fruitful partnership and put a dozen high-skill jobs at risk.
However, the uncertainty also brought opportunity. Almost immediately following the decision by Sasol, the University entered discussions with Professor Robert Tooze of the School of Chemistry, and formerly of Sasol UK, to pilot an independent “contract R&D” company to continue the work of the lab.
In a press release dated 20 December, the University announced it had granted the new venture a financial package of £700,000 to continue the work of the erstwhile Sasol UK lab, saving the positions at stake.
The new venture, which commenced trading on 8 January, was christened Drochaid Research Services Ltd, ‘drochaid’ being a Scots Gaelic word meaning ‘bridge.’ This is a nod to the role the nascent enterprise sees for itself as a resource for “customers [to] span the gap from invention to commercialisation, […] connect academia with industry, [and] link new areas of technology”.
Drochaid capitalises on its veteran workforce, saying that “since 2002, the group has built a unique critical mass of expertise, experience, and worldclass experimental skills in the area of catalysis and materials science”.
It is also currently host to doctoral students linked to the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Critical Resource Catalytics, further bolstering the ‘bridge’ function that it claims between academia and industry.
The University controls Drochaid, owning all share capital in addition to the facilities in which the young company operates. Nonetheless, the venture is commercial and is run accordingly.
Derek Watson, Quaestor and Factor of the University and a managing director of Drochaid, explained how the company enjoys a high degree of autonomy. “The Board of Directors and Professor Tooze […] have freedom in building what we believe can be a successful business,” he wrote. The Board of Directors, currently being assembled from industry professionals, will “exercise control of the development of Drochaid,” Mr Watson added.
The young enterprise has seen early success, with contract income already approaching £400,000 at the time of writing. Having already saved a dozen jobs, a document compiled by Drochaid for The Saint suggested that the number of staff on its payroll will “at least double in the next few years”.
Like the Sasol lab, Drochaid focuses on catalysts. While a textbook definition of a catalyst describes a substance that “speeds up the rate of a chemical reaction,” Drochaid suggests that this fails to capture catalysts’ true importance to and wide scope of use in modern industry.
Drochaid claims that the vast majority, 85 per cent, of all manufactured goods make use of a catalyst at some stage in the production process.
Beyond industry, catalysts are an invisible but indispensable cornerstone of the modern world, involved in everything from heating to mobile technology.
Prof. Tooze predicts a growing role for catalysts in addressing such contemporary crises as “clean water, healthcare for a growing and aging population, reduction of greenhouse gases, adequate food, the efficient use of renewable resources, and the development of low or zero-carbon power”.
Drochaid will work with its customers in the chemicals sector and beyond to help them incorporate and improve catalytic processes and products.
Currently, the company’s work mainly brings it into contact with the chemicals sector, but it sees room for growth in energy storage and biotechnology.
Mr Watson seems pleased that Drochaid’s early success is “extremely positive,” but noted that there is “more work to be done”.
No doubt there are big things in store for Drochaid as it continues to grow and pioneer in the ever-expanding field of catalytics.