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Meet the DTI missionaries

To compete in today's marketplace companies must use the latest technology. This means keeping abreast of developments worldwide. So what's the best way to achieve this? The Department of Trade and Industry believes the answer may be found in its International Technology Service (ITS). Although the service has existed since 1986, its low profile has meant the take-up rate has remained surprisingly low.

ITS works in four ways. It supports short overseas missions by groups of experts; it provides advice and financial support for the overseas secondment of individuals; it provides free information to UK firms from a team of international technology promoters in four key countries; and it conducts database searches through its Global Information on Science and Technology (GIST) service to provide information on the latest developments in science, technology and management practice.

So far, ITS has helped 230 short-term missions and now helps 30 a year. Recent examples include one to South Korea, looking at a scheme to deal with traffic congestion. Another studied timber housing in Japan. Missions are sponsored by bodies such as a professional institution, Business Link, trade association, or a university. ITS not only funds the mission's travel, but also contributes to the sponsoring body's costs in organising the trip, producing a final report, and disseminating the findings.

These are not trade missions. The purpose is to learn and then disseminate the information to other British companies. But because the teams exchange ideas with their overseas hosts, the hosts learn about progress on these technologies in the UK and get a better awareness of Britain's commercial strengths. Mission members often make reciprocal invitations to their hosts during their overseas visits.

There are, however, occasions when international technology promoters see overseas opportunities and do organise trade missions. A deal between a small precision engineering company in Nelson, Lancashire, PDS Engineering, and Nasa arose out of a mission to Houston arranged by Cliff Young, one of three promoters covering the USA. PDS Engineering will promote the space centre's technologies throughout Europe. At the same time a new joint venture, PDS USA, will build projects on site at the Nasa space centre.

Secondments of individuals began in 1997. So far 56 people have been seconded to 23 countries. They can be from any discipline and visit any country for up to 12 months. ITS provides both financial help and advice. This secondment scheme is targeted at firms with up to 2,000 employees. Larger firms can also get practical support, but more limited financial assistance.

Jennifer Stuart, an environmental technologist with Glasgow-based Environmental Reclamation Services Ltd, says of her own secondment: "It is the sort of experience you could never learn from a textbook. We'd identified certain key issues and wanted to improve our ability to bring novel technologies to the environmental contracting market. We already had contacts within the States, including a flimsy agency agreement with MSE, a company that developed the technologies. But we didn't have a close enough contact and found it hard to implement the agreement."

Stuart's secondment enabled her to work with MSE for three months. How has her company benefited? "An improved relationship with MSE. We can now communicate more effectively."

For further information on the ITS, telephone: 0171-215 3884