Forging links in business chain

August 25, 2016

Increased links between business and universities are an unalloyed good, and not only because they may help to fill a gap in government funding; the accumulation of knowledge should not remain within academia but must be put to use in businesses and social enterprises. Why else would we be teaching practical things such as engineering, biomechanics and medicine?

However, the rapid growth seen in the recently published Higher Education Funding Council for England data reflects more the low base from which the UK starts effective commercialisation of our leading research, rather than a US-like success story (“University income from firms grows as public spending stagnates”, 18 August). The journey from idea to product is long and winding, and our universities need to make many more adjustments both in structure and in behaviour to make the most of research.

Academics rarely recognise potential commercial applications of their work. Successful universities have introduced a group of entrepreneurial middlemen with doctoral training who can bridge this gap. They have also adapted to the notion that “losing” academics to commercial work will in the longer term increase the desire of the talented to research and teach in their institutions.

Academics themselves need to understand that their work pattern needs to adapt, quite significantly, if they are to participate effectively in industrial collaborations and spin-outs. Moving from challenging idea to challenging idea and taking advantage of serendipity in directing attention work well for research but are simply incompatible with the focus on quality of product and timetables that are essential to all types of commercial activity. Universities need to invest in a management group that can help guide academic work to commercial success in a way that is both effective and totally sympathetic to the character and nature of people who create the sparks for that commercial success.

Links with business will become more and more important for UK universities and are an opportunity to increase revenue and boost reputation. But more work is needed if we are to maximise these opportunities.

George Feiger
Pro vice-chancellor and executive dean
Aston Business School

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