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Friday, April 24, 2009

Learning from the academics

Accessing research skills is easier than you might think through business-university collaboration schemes. But beware - it's not 'free' R&D, and you need to be crystal clear about your objectives

If you're looking for first-mover advantage, you can't do much better than tap into the UK's research talent. Our talent base is up there with the best - a recent report shows that we produce nine per cent of the world's scientific papers and receive 12 per cent of all citations. But accessing academic research isn't simply a case of ringing up your nearest University, and it doesn't necessarily come cheap.

In fact, with some 200 technology departments at around 50 universities in the South East alone, it can literally be a case of sticking a pin in a UK-shaped map. And when you do find that elusive expertise, somebody is probably going to have to pay for it, since universities are becoming more and more aware of their commercial value. The good news, though, is that there's a host of schemes available that can help you navigate your way round and gain funding.

The UK has always had a good track record of collaboration between its research base and industry. A study by Warwick University showed that UK universities generate one spin-off company for every EURO 25m of research budget (as compared to one per EUR 87m in the US). They also disclose one invention for every EUR 2m (compared to EUR 3m in the US) and form one spin-off for every 13 disclosures (29 in the US). Technology transfer success can't just be measured in the number of spin-offs, however - starting an ill-conceived spin-out that crashes and burns is far worse than striking a licensing deal with an established company.

Brian Graves, director of engineering technology transfer at Imperial Innovations, which floated on the AIM market a year ago, says: '[The success of spin-outs] is one measure. But having a good flow of Intellectual Property into the business is also a key factor, as well as being able to find the appropriate route to commercialisation. Another key to our success is investment activity and getting exits around our investments, and finally, building up a licence portfolio that generates a good revenue stream.'

Graves says 'brokering activity' - building relationships between business and academia - is a relatively new activity for Imperial Innovations. And while Imperial covers a wide range of subject areas, the company is particularly focused on two: incubating low-carbon technologies with funding from the Carbon Trust, and recycling technologies funded by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

'This is an important route of access for the [small and mid-sized business]. We can help in developing their business strategy, help with marketing requirements, IP protection issues - anything that's necessary in getting the technology into a fit state for commercialisation.' Graves points out that Imperial Innovations tends to get involved later in the research cycle, for example in Proof of Concept trials to develop technology and bring it to market as a product.

The London Development Agency supports four Proof of Concept funds which divide the capital's 24 universities into groups, one led by Imperial. These provide funding of between �5,000 and �25,000 and are intended to feed into the g2i programme. Another government-funded research programme is the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs). Formerly known as the Teaching Company Scheme, KTPs celebrated their thirtieth anniversary last year and are currently responsible for more than a thousand projects where knowledge, technology and skills in various sectors are transferred from academia to businesses. With an average project size of �60,000, businesses with less than 250 employees should expect to contribute a third of this cost.

Aside from these government schemes, the London Technology Network provides access to over 6,000 academics from diverse research centres in the South and East, from Cranfield University to Cambridge. It's also responsible for the London arm of the Innovation Relay Centre, which collates research projects from Universities around Europe. Peter Reid, chief executive of the LTN, says: 'If companies are adopting new technologies they often need external help, which is often available in universities. University departments are either developing new technology or new applications for it and are involved in design, influencing how a product looks so consumers want to engage with it.'

The LTN, like many of the universities themselves, has a structured process for enabling companies to interact with academia, starting with a technology audit of their requirements. Reid says companies are sometimes unclear about what they need, or how a university might be able to help. 'Our job is to help create a market, so first we help businesses understand what the problems are that universities can help them address.'

LTN holds networking events focused on specific technology sectors - upcoming events focus on nutrition and health, grid technology and digital content - to help create these connections. It then passes a short statement of need to various university contacts, which come up with different ways they could help through consulting, training or skills transfer. Once a company chooses which offer it wants to take up, the LTN will also help in framing a contract.

Those who have been involved in business-university collaboration point out that it's important to clearly state the expected outcomes. Kevin Davey, director at The Innovatory, says MBA students can be particularly helpful for a small business and can arrive on placement while they complete a dissertation or carry out a project as part of their course. But he adds: 'It can be something complex and high-level they work on, such as developing a marketing plan or a patent strategy, but it has to be a clearly defined project with boundaries and measurement in terms of the outcomes.'

Ultimately, the key to success in any business-university relationship is to provide benefits for both sides. Graves says the days of companies expecting universities to provide skills or consulting for free are gone: 'There's a greater awareness now that universities deal on a commercial basis and it's all about finding a deal with fits for both sides. It's important to look for mutual inputs.'
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