It's plain sailing with the trade winds

June 9, 2006

Commerce does not have to be a dirty word. Greenwich University has found that forging links with industry motivates research and taps new income streams, reports Michael North

Scores of colourful ant-like bodies rush towards virtual exits on the computer screen. They replicate exactly the behaviour of workers fleeing the stricken World Trade Centre on 9/11.

Ed Galea, a professor of mathematical modelling, is showing off one of the award-winning software programs that have been so commercially successful for his team at Greenwich University. His 35-strong research group leads the world in creating computational fluid dynamics programs that help companies and governments to understand the impact of industrial accidents and disasters even before they have happened.

As he demonstrates his software in a typically chaotic academic's office, two men in suits wait quietly to talk business. They are representatives of a US industrial company with a $40 billion turnover.

Galea's research group in Greenwich's School of Computer and Mathematical Sciences (CMS) typifies the sort of marriage between academic output and business that Greenwich is striving for and, increasingly, succeeding in.

As the Higher Education Funding Council for England prepares to publish its annual Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey this month, Greenwich is sitting pretty. It showed the strongest growth in the sector in income from industry links between 2002 and 2005 - from £468,000 in 2002-03 to £1.3 million in 2004-05 - according to The Research Yearbook . The figure is expected to climb to £1.6 million this year. Moreover, in 2004 Greenwich came 35th out of all UK universities in generating income from applied research. It has now climbed to 22nd place. Hefce's report will not name names but will be used to promote so-called third-stream funding, something that is becoming increasingly popular in government circles.

Baroness Tessa Blackstone, Greenwich vice-chancellor and a former Labour minister, says links with business, as well as with the public sector, are fundamental to a modern university's mission. "The university of the 21st century has to be one that looks outwards. It has to teach traditional subjects as well as to think about the applicability of its research and teaching," she says.

"I want all the university's schools to have a group of employers they work with, including large, medium and small firms. I want to promote the employability of students and to ensure that teaching will be valuable and relevant to them."

To this end, the university recently recruited Marc Hume, former chief executive of the Thames Gateway Kent Partnership. He is charged with building partnerships with business, industry and the public sector and capitalising on the university's research expertise, training capabilities and opportunities for technology transfer.

Hume has a good record in generating income - in his old job he unlocked Pounds 210 million of public money for social and economic regeneration.

He is upfront about his priority for Greenwich, saying that unless the partnerships with business "translate into financial return for the university, we have a problem. I want us to grow our resources, sustainable year on year. Growth will be our mantra".

Hume's first task has been to focus every school in the university on enterprise, rather than just those such as engineering used to working with industry. His team has just completed a review. "It concluded that we have to have a corporate approach to targets and a sense of purpose. We have to animate our schools, up the ante and increase activity. We need directors of research to become directors of research and enterprise and to encourage academics to be more active."

To get everyone singing from the same song sheet, each school will be required to provide an enterprise plan - "just two to three pages each year," Hume says. "It will make it easier for me and the university to get the funding we want. With targets it will be clear where we are going. When we don't hit the targets, we will be able to explain that to our partners and to ourselves."

Asked if there has been any resistance to the new corporate ethos, both Hume and Blackstone stress that the response has been positive. "I don't think there is resistance to that here," Blackstone says. "The (enterprise) plans will work well. The contribution different schools will make will vary. Some will be heavily into continuing professional development, working for different types of business; others will be more of a conventional research kind. We will be quite catholic in what we define as enterprise plans."

Blackstone adds that there will be no hierarchy of schools based on income generated. "Departments will be funded according to student numbers; this is the biggest component of funding and it will continue. It's easier to generate more income in some areas than in others."

One result of the "joined-up" thinking across the university has been the creation of four "business innovation hubs", backed by the Higher Education Innovation Fund, which supports knowledge exchange and productive interactions between universities and business and public-sector organisations.

The hubs bring together experts from a range of university departments to work with business to identify research, consultancy, training and funding opportunities. Each hub will appoint a team of "business fellows" to develop new business partnerships with the university's schools and research departments.

The science hub based at the Medway campus will, for example, use the expertise of researchers in health and social care, science, the Natural Resources Institute and the Medway School of Pharmacy. Medway Enterprise has also been launched to provide incubator space for new local companies, with access to the university's facilities and expertise.

Hume says: "It unclutters the relationship we have with business by providing grants and support and premises. The simpler we make things, the better for everyone."

The Medway School of Pharmacy is, moreover, one of the university's schools being sponsored by big business: multi-national pharmaceutical firm Pfizer will provide £500,000 over five years, with the aim of addressing the shortage of pharmacists in the South East. A new head of school has been appointed.

Global engineering and design company Atkins is also sponsoring Greenwich to the tune of £700,000 over five years and will offer work placements and graduate employment opportunities. A new Atkins professor of civil engineering will develop the university's links with industry and professional bodies and will create a leading-edge curriculum, with both local and international project work.

The Atkins deal comes at an opportune time for the company, university and region - demand for civil engineering is soaring with new developments in the Thames Gateway and the London Olympic Park. Paul Wookey, chief executive of Locate in Kent and a spokesman for the local business community, points to the importance of Greenwich's engineering school:

"Access to a skilled and trained workforce is fundamental to a company's decision to invest in a new location."

Hume has a succinct summary of the relationships with sponsors: "They pay, we provide."

The university's blueprint for a thriving school forging productive collaborations with public and private sectors seems to be found in CMS.

Chris Bailey, one of the school's professors who is a director of a Higher Education Innovation Fund hub, says: "My role is to manage a group doing research relevant to the research assessment exercise and to run a group providing third-leg activities: working with industry, providing consultancy services and running short courses."

Bailey's computer modelling group is involved in many Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council projects with other universities, collaborations with the National Physical Laboratory in Middlesex and Department of Trade and Industry-funded work with the private and the public sectors.

The DTI and Cutty Sark Trust have just given Bailey's team £135,000 to help restore the old Victorian tea clipper in Greenwich, using computer modelling to ensure the structure does not collapse during restoration.

In a project with a museum in Woolwich, Bailey's researchers will work with historians to set up a database for Army records, an example of the crossdisciplinary collaborations Greenwich is aiming for.

Bailey's work with companies as large as Smiths Industries has involved developing cockpit displays for submarines and predicting product lifespans to optimise their design. Every PhD supervised by Bailey is sponsored by, or works with, a company, and CMS is developing a website to promote its work to industry.

When academics are as successful at attracting business deals as Bailey and Galea, one wonders why they don't sever ties with the university and make some serious money. Galea answers: "To stay at the cutting edge you have to do a lot of fundamental research. If we just stopped at one product release, we would have been overtaken. What drives the research are real-world problems in industry."

The creation of knowledge, income and employable students seem to be complementary aims. Blackstone stresses that the focus at Greenwich is not solely on making money and shares her holistic vision of the university contributing to the needs of its local community as well as wider society and the economy.

She says: "Universities such as Greenwich have a huge amount to give in working with the private and the public sectors, in looking at needs for qualified manpower. It's not just about income generation, it's about playing a valuable role in the economy and making sure students benefit from the fact that you are playing that role."

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