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New report looks at ways to improve the commercialisation of university research

Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering

Despite efforts to turn things around, there remains the feeling that work done in UK universities isn't finding its way into the hands of UK companies that might be able to exploit it.

One reason put forward in the past is that academia and business operate on different timescales; universities may be talking 10 years to commercialisation, whilst business isn't interested in something that doesn't bring them a quick return on an investment. And this gap has become known as the 'valley of death'.

Yet there are partnerships between universities and business which are making headway, but not all are as successful as they might be and a recent report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills addressed the reasons why.

Chairing the report was Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Her report – compiled after regional meetings, workshops and more than 210 written submissions from academia and industry – found the complexity of existing support mechanisms creates frustration and confusion and means the UK is not reaping the full potential of its opportunity to connect businesses with the 'excellent research' being done in UK universities.

"Business-university research collaboration is an important part of the innovation ecosystem," said Prof Dowling, "but innovation is a complex, non linear activity. This has resulted in a complex policy support mechanism for innovation that presents a barrier to business engagement, especially for small businesses. Government has a crucial role to play in creating the right conditions for effective collaboration between academia and industry."

She added: "We need a change of culture in our universities to support and encourage collaboration with industry. In the UK, we can be a bit dismissive about research that actually has an application but, in reality, such use-inspired research can be truly excellent.

"Access to industry projects was cited very positively by the researchers we consulted – they want to be working on these challenging and interesting projects with demonstrable impact and excellent career prospects."

One of the issues identified by the report – The Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations – was the need for effective brokerage. According to the report, brokerage requires tools to make it easier for companies to find research which matches their interests. 'At present', the report notes, 'no UK wide service exists that adequately addresses this need'.

The report also highlights the fact that the Catapult network is now an integral part of UK innovation. But, for the network to continue to flourish, it needs to receive long term, sustained support from Government. Prof Dowling also believes the number of Catapults should grow, but only with additional funding, and that Catapult performance should be measured, in part, by the success of their engagements with academia.

Prof Dowling also pointed out the need for funding to kick start such collaborations, acknowledging the role played by InnovateUK and the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. Called 'pump prime funding' in the report, this moneywould 'stimulate the development of high quality research collaborations with critical mass and sustainability'. It is suggested that the money, which would come from public and private sources, be allocated as Awards in Collaborative Excellence. These Awards should cover employment costs of researchers for at least five years, with the industry partner expected to commit to funding the research carried out by the team.

Grants, the report continues, would be awarded on the basis of the strength of the proposed research, the quality of the research team and the level of commitment from the partners. 'Experience with existing schemes suggests a very favourable return on investment could be achieved', says the report.

Commenting, Prof Dowling said: "Solutions to everyday problems could be sitting in a lab right now but, without the conversation with industry, they could be missed." But she also recognises that academia has to 'get out into industry' in order to inform its research. "It is vital that research students in appropriate disciplines spend some time in industry in order to get a new perspective on their own research, expand knowledge and build relationships. They should also receive training, particularly around entrepreneurship."

Some of the report's recommendations are already in place; the role of Technology Transfer Offices is noted. But the report urges these offices to take a longer term view of commercialising research, not to use it for short term revenue generation. 'Notwithstanding the substantial work already undertaken to improve approaches to establishing contracts and IP agreements, this area remains a major source of frustration for both academics and businesses', the report finds.

The Government also comes in for some criticism, with a range of recommendations. Included is the call for the Government to use innovation as the core component of policies which are aimed at promoting productivity and competitiveness, as well as a recommendation that it should prioritise an increased investment in industrial sectors of strategic importance. 'InnovateUK should be tasked with monitoring investment levels in R&D across industrial strategy sectors and managing the matched funding stream from Government'.

The report notes that companies can improve business performance through developing new techniques or technologies, de-risk investment in research, and extend the capabilities and expertise available to the firm. It also found that investment in collaborative R&D delivers 'real benefits' to the UK, driving growth and productivity improvements for firms and high quality research outputs.

'It is clear that the UK has played host to many successful business-university collaborations. Yet it is also clear that the UK is not reaping the full potential provided by the opportunity to connect innovative businesses – from the UK and overseas – with the excellence in the UK's academic research base. Government has a crucial role in fostering the conditions under which these collaborations can happen at scale and deliver enduring impacts for all parties involved' it concludes.

Author
Graham Pitcher

Related Downloads
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