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Business and Management Research: The appliance of science

UK universities are leading the way in many areas of scientific research, but how can they make sure that their research has an impact in business and industry? Steve Coomber and Des Dearlove explore one initiative that aims to do just that, led by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Universities in the UK produce some of the finest science-based research in the world. But what good is brilliant research if it is buried in obscure journals and never finds its way into organisations, where it can be applied to improve products, services and organisational processes? That is why the UK Government has targeted considerable resources at the interface between research and industry in attempt to improve knowledge transfer, and, in doing so, boost the competitiveness of UK business on the world stage.

‘There has been a general issue for a number of years that the UK is good at science, but not that good at exploitation,’ says Vince Osgood, a Technology Sector Manager in the Research and Innovation Directorate at the EPSRC. ‘So, for example, our scientists win lots of international prizes for science and yet, if you look back, quite a lot of the application and exploitation of that knowledge seems to be picked up by other countries.’

The EPSRC is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. It invests around £740m a year in research and postgraduate training in a broad range of subjects, from mathematics to materials science. The EPSRC’s many initiatives include the Knowledge Transfer Challenge Awards.

The Knowledge Transfer Challenge

The Knowledge Transfer Challenge was launched in 2006. In its pilot form, the competition was open to 51 UK universities, all of which had a Collaborative Training Account (CTA) from the EPSRC. CTAs provide guaranteed funding over a fixed period, usually four years, and combine the various EPSRC schemes that connect postgraduate-training programmes with the workplace, including Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and Research Assistants Industrial Secondments.

The Knowledge Transfer Challenge was designed as a competitive process, with the universities first asked to demonstrate their track record in knowledge transfer and to provide some examples of the knowledge-transfer activities that they had undertaken. Then, in the second part of the Award, the university was asked to propose some ideas of how it might improve its knowledge-transfer activities.

‘What we were trying to do was to capitalise on the funding we provided for the universities, so that we could increase the level of knowledge transfer, and make sure that the outcomes of the universities’ research and training was made more generally available,’ says Osgood, who is responsible for devising and organising the Knowledge Transfer Challenge Awards.

‘We were looking for universities that had significant funding from us and to receive from them just a short summary of the examples of knowledge transfer that they had undertaken in recent years that had actually led to some economic or social benefits.’

As Osgood points out, one of the major issues with research funding is the timescales involved. When the EPSRC funds a piece of research, it may be ten to fifteen years before that research gets embedded into a product or process. The advantage of the Knowledge Transfer Challenge was that it allowed the EPSRC to keep abreast of what use the universities were making of their research grants, and take note of and disseminate any best practice.

Out of the 51 universities that were approached, 41 universities responded, with each allowed a single bid. For the universities and their research teams that made it onto the final shortlist of five finalists, there were some substantial prizes. The first prize was £500,000, with another four prizes for the shortlisted universities of £100,000 each.

The prize money was to be spent in a specific way. ‘The money was to be used to expand the winning universities’ knowledge-transfer activities and to enhance the engagement of active research with the business community,’ says Osgood.

Making the pitch

On 21 November 2006, the five shortlisted finalists gathered in London. Each team presented to an interview panel, demonstrating how they had used their research money effectively in the past and also attempting to persuade the panel of judges that they had the best ideas for using the prize money effectively to improve knowledge transfer in the future.

The five finalists and their examples of existing knowledge transfer were:
• Aston University – improving the effectiveness and cutting the cost of wound care
• the University of Edinburgh – spearheading innovation in electronics, from iPod components to low-cost sensors for cameras
• the University of Leeds – a range of activities from state-of-the-art mobility aids to better detection of counterfeit banknotes
• the University of Manchester – major advances in getting different computer systems to communicate with each other
• Newcastle University – tackling residual pollution in disused mines.

Typical of the type of extensive interaction between postgraduate research and industry demonstrated by the finalists was Aston University’s track record in knowledge transfer, helping biomedical company First Water, which specialises in professional wound-care products and other healthcare and cosmetic dressings. The innovative components of the company’s products are polymer- and water-based hydrogels that can take up or impart moisture to a wound.

The company worked with Aston University’s Biomaterials Research Unit in key areas like hydrogel design and synthesis, helping to devise new products, and improve manufacturing and technology processes. Initially, the collaboration was funded via a Knowledge Transfer Partnership involving the EPSRC and the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The collaboration also led to a number of other associated University-led research projects, including five EPSRC CASE Studentships and involving a number of organisations, including the UK Government’s Department of Health.

The Knowledge Transfer Challenge exercise gave the EPSRC a unique snapshot of the research it was funding across UK universities. While some universities had developed spinouts that had then been sold on to bigger businesses, others gave examples of small-scale activities like the Knowledge Transfer Partnership or the Research Assistants Industrial Secondments Scheme, where a relatively small amount of money actually led to an existing company improving its performance.

‘There was quite a rich mixture of activities,’ says Osgood. ‘I was surprised but pleased to see the diversity and the range presented.’

The winning team

The winner of the Knowledge Transfer Challenge was the University of Manchester. Alison Bowen, Associate Dean of External Affairs at the University of Manchester, explains why the University got involved in the process: ‘It was a pilot competition, inviting all collaborative training fundholders to apply, and we have one of the larger funds. Knowledge transfer is a key activity of this university; we are very proactive in working with industry and getting the outputs of our technology, in its broadest sense, into the marketplace, so it was obviously a very attractive competition for us.’

The first part of Manchester’s winning bid was a case study of Transitive, a spinout company from the University’s Computer Science Department. Alasdair Rawsthorne, the company’s founder and Chief Technical Officer, was a lecturer in computer science at the University of Manchester. In 1995, Rawsthorne and his postgraduate student research team began work developing dynamic binary translation software that was taken into Transitive when it launched in October 2000.

‘Our winning bid was a case study on one of our spinout companies,’ says Bowen. ‘Transitive is a real success story for us. It is the company that developed the software that enables Apple computers to run Windows. It is a key bit of technology that has revolutionised the way Apple Macs and other computers are used.’

The second part of the University of Manchester’s winning bid involved outlining how the £500,000 would be used to further links between the University’s researchers and industry. ‘We have got extensive experience through existing knowledge-transfer-related funding mechanisms and working with companies,’ says Bowen. ‘We were able to assess where we felt there were gaps in the offering, where we keep running into stumbling blocks with companies. So we put in proposals to pilot three new knowledge-transfer mechanisms, all three concerning engagement with industry and the business community.’

The first is a feasibility study. This involves a low level of funding drawn from the £500,000. The study is mainly aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that do not have any real tradition of working with universities, taking on researchers or even employing graduates. So this provides the SMEs with short-term projects to work on with the University, prior to them taking the collaboration forward using an existing mechanism like a Knowledge Transfer Partnership.

‘The second initiative is a concept study aimed more at major corporations, although not exclusively. It could be a single company; it could be a consortia,’ says Bowen. ‘We use the money as a pump prime for corporations in situations where there is an existing process or technology that we and they believe could be adapted for use in a different marketplace. Because the use or marketplace is sufficiently different from their existing business, they wouldn’t normally get buy in from the board to go into a major long-term research programme without testing it out first.’

The concept study, explains Bowen, allows companies to test the water for a period of three to six months, during which time, they are able to discover whether a particular process or technology can be transferred and applied effectively. It allows both the company and the University research team time to explore the issues and see what needs to be worked on before the company moves on to a long-term research projects programme, and the technology gets taken forward into the marketplace.

Finally, the third mechanism is a relationship incubator. ‘The idea is to help companies looking to establish either a new base in the northwest, or to relocate to the north to have a kick start whilst they are still preparing their accommodation in the region,’ says Bowen. ‘We arrange for them to send what is effectively an advance party group of engineers and researchers which we accommodate on campus for a short period of time. Usually, it is no longer than six to twelve months. They can start work in Manchester and get to know the academics. We co-locate them with the relevant academic department, giving them bench space.’

A new challenge

The first Knowledge Transfer Challenge was such a success that the next competition is in the process of being organised. Once again, there is nearly £1m prize money on offer, with £500,000 for the winner and four lots of £100,000 for the other finalists. The call for universities to submit bids has been issued by the EPSRC, with a closing date of 31 August 2007. This time around, too, having run a very successful pilot, the EPSRC are opening the competition up to all universities that have received a research grant from the research council.

‘We are sending a message to UK universities that that we regard knowledge transfer as an essential activity,’ says Osgood.

Des Dearlove is a long-time columnist and former commissioning editor for The Times.

Steve Coomber writes for The Times, CEO Magazine and Business Strategy Review.

Read more Business & Management research highlights, including 2006 research about Psychological Contracts and a 2008 research paper about how Management Research Can Make A Difference In The Real World.