The interface between our world-leading universities and industry is a crucial element of a successful UK economy.
The innovation and growth that can be achieved as a result of a merger between discovery-driven academia and the strategic business approach of the commercial world has transformed the technology industry and changed the traditional role of the university.
The realisation of this potential means that collaboration between academia and industry is no longer simply in the form of isolated investment by industry into small research projects, but is instead about exploring different opportunities for long-term collaboration and maximum commercialisation success.
At Taylor Vinters we continue to support a vast range of clients with different approaches to such partnerships. Some of the varying methods of collaboration we are seeing are explored below.
Problem solving collaboration
One of the most common ways of collaboration is through joint research projects. Industry and academia have recognised the ways in which they can complement each other’s skill set and solve problems they cannot solve alone.
Collaborative programmes and industry-sponsored laboratories within university departments have been around for some time. The Hitachi Cambridge Laboratory and the Toshiba Research Laboratory have been embedded within the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge since the early nineties.
A different approach involves the establishment of specific research institutes, which create a multi-disciplinary research and development hub under which cross-expertise can be shared. The BP Institute within the Cambridge-MIT Institute at the University of Cambridge is just one example of this in practice, and contributed to the formation of Cambridge-based rising star, Breathing Buildings Limited.
Indeed, Breathing Buildings, with its innovative natural ventilation systems, was spun out from the university on the back of a major research programme at the BP Institute, with funding from BP Plc.
Partnering to develop human capital
One noticeable by-product of collaboration through joint research is the recognition by universities of the need to adapt and modernise teaching and training. For some universities and companies, partnership is essential to produce a next-generation work force by mutually defining the required skill set and equipping young people with the knowledge they need for industry.
This, of course, aids the recruitment process and transition into industry of those students involved. Featurespace Limited for example, employs Cambridge University software engineers, data analysts and researchers and continues to incorporate innovation from the university into its behavioural change identification algorithms and software solutions. Plus, many companies continue to sponsor professorships and PhD students.
Another example of an organisation closing the knowledge gap within the start-up scene is exciting new start up, the ASI, effectively a data analytics finishing school, who select outstanding PhDs and Post-Docs from science, technology, engineering and mathematics from the world’s top universities to join their eight-week project based fellowship program. The premise is to enable academics to build a network of colleagues and mentors and learn industry specific skills to progress their careers in data science.
Evolution of the university spin-out
The spin-out is a familiar and well understood way for a university to profit from intellectual property generated by the research of its employees. Typically, a new company (the spin-out) is established in partnership with a founder team and investment is sought to develop the idea. This trusted model whereby cross-expertise is shared between industry experienced investors and the founder has evolved over time and can be realised though a number of different distinct approaches.
Traditionally, there are those technology transfer offices (TTOs) who actively identify new technology within universities and work with academics to help commercialise opportunities. This has created formalised links between academia and industry, whilst respectively addressing the need to raise university endowments.
The University of Cambridge Enterprise fund is an example of a commercialisation arm whereby a network of alumni and friends of the university can invest in new companies, producing record returns.
Equally, with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, Cambridge Innovation Capital is another outstanding example of an investment group investing in new technologies and providing access to industry expertise to young companies.
Using a different model, Imperial Innovations Group Plc seeks to achieve this by harnessing the ability to raise funds from the stock market. The group has an agreement with Imperial College under which it acts as Imperial College’s TTO and has the right to emerging IP.
The group was listed on AIM in 2006 and has raised some £206million in net proceeds from investors since 2005. With all of these examples, the academic industry partnership is clear - investors are reliant on new and innovative ideas being generated by the academic, but are also reliant on the industry capability of the investment group to successfully commercialise it.
As noted above, spin-outs formed from industrial partnerships, have their own distinct appeal – to some extent they can be implied to be focused on an area where there is industrial demand for something new.
So once you take into account corporate funds being placed into VC funds, industrial funding of research projects, and the opportunities for spin-outs to work with, and in due course be provided with an exit route by, larger corporate partners, it is clear that industry can play a vital proactive role in the virtuous circle of bringing through the benefits of academic research excellence to the wider economy.
Unquestionably, academic-industry partnership creates a broad and varying spectrum of opportunity and only a handful of partnerships have been touched upon in this article.
Going forward, we are likely to see an increase in long-term collaboration deals, spin-outs and international collaboration. Up-and-coming institutions should be encouraged to try their hand at industry collaboration and both the EU and government have a role to play in facilitating this. Evidently, the EU Commission has launched a number of initiatives (such as the European Institute for Innovation and Technology) to improve the innovation climate across Europe and encourage integration of the three sides to the knowledge triangle – higher education, research and business.
Clearly, academic industry partnership is firmly on Europe’s agenda and we can expect to see more.