Simplify university-industry R&D collaboration

Support mechanisms for technology transfer and collaborations are frustrating and confusing. As a result the UK is not reaping the full potential of connecting companies with university research

It is time to simplify the plethora of schemes aiming to facilitate university-industry research collaboration across all disciplines, according to a UK government-commissioned review by Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The complexity of the existing support mechanisms creates frustration and confusion and means the UK is not reaping the full potential of its opportunity to connect either domestic or international companies with the research being done in UK universities.

“Business-university research collaboration is an important part of the innovation ecosystem, 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,” Dowling said.

The government needs to take a systems view of these mechanisms in order to try and simplify the process as much as possible.

“Solutions to everyday problems could be sitting in a lab right now, but without the conversation with industry they could be missed,” said Dowling said.

Value added through academic collaborations

In terms of the significance of improving relationships, Dowling points to an analysis conducted in 2013 of collaborative R&D funding awarded by the UK technology commercialisation agency, Innovate UK. This found business impacts to be twice as high for projects with two or more academic partners, at £9.67 gross value added per pound spent, compared to projects without academic partners, at £4.22 gross value added per pound.

The newly installed Chief Executive of Innovate UK, Ruth McKernan said Dowling’s views of the innovation ecosystem “chime almost exactly with my own” and pledged to make simplification of the support system for companies and universities one of her priorities.

McKernan, who was formerly Senior Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer of Pfizer’s Neusentis research unit in Cambridge, said she wanted to show the kind of leadership that will take the recommendations forward. “We have world class universities but we need to see that excellence turned into economic benefit. We also have duty to simplify the support system for businesses and universities as much as we can.”

Business awareness

Dowling’s review also recommends an incentive framework for universities and businesses to promote the transfer of ideas and people between business and academia. This includes supporting students to develop business awareness at an early stage of their research careers and recognising researchers who are successful collaborators in terms of career progression and research assessment. 

“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,” Dowling said. “They should also receive training, particularly around entrepreneurship.”

University technology transfer offices should set targets focused on long-term gains to get the most from their intellectual property, including patents, rather than looking to short-term financial gains.

All academics should see and feel that their university supports and rewards industrial collaboration, Dowling says. “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.”

In fact, access to industry projects was cited very positively by researchers consulted during the review, who said they want to work on challenging and interesting projects with demonstrable impact and excellent career prospects.

Award for Collaborative Excellence

Despite concluding there are too many schemes, the review also points to a gap in provision in terms of encouraging academia-industry research partnerships to grow. This is particularly the case in helping existing short-term, project-based collaborations to evolve into longer term partnerships focused on applied research.

The review proposes a new ‘Awards for Collaborative Excellence’ scheme that would provide pump-priming funds on a competitive basis to enable strong relationships between individuals in academia and industry to develop into group collaborations with critical mass, substantial industry funding and a long-term horizon.

Article published by partner Science Business at

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