A third of companies surveyed for a new study say that academics lack the commercial understanding needed to make a business-university collaboration work.
Building Successful Collaborations: The SME’s Viewpoint on Partnering with a University, a report compiled by data firm Beauhurst, which works with universities to help them engage with the commercial world, spoke to 30 businesses working with a university in a collaborative research project funded by the government agency Innovate UK.
It found that 32 per cent of the firms disagreed when asked if the academics understood the potential impact of the project on their business. The report goes on to suggest that “a raft of potential projects have failed to start because of a lack of commercial understanding by the academic approached”.
Ben McLeod, senior associate at Beauhurst, said the “cultural differences” between businesses and academics were huge: academics enjoy asking questions and creating “new shiny things” but small and medium-sized enterprises are “driven by profit” and “creating a business that creates revenue and drives a product into the market”.
“One of the key things that needs to continue to change is the incentives to get innovation to not just create shiny things, but shiny things that change the world and are able and encouraged to be moved into businesses,” he said. “We’re trying to match up the people with the shiny things with the people who are able to turn them into successful products and business.”
As such, communication and relationship management from an early stage is crucial for business-university collaborations to work.
“University bureaucracy winds businesses up and makes partnerships hard to achieve. Managing the relationship carefully, making sure everyone is aware of everyone’s limitations [is crucial],” he said. “If you’re a business, you shouldn’t expect things to happen tomorrow.”
Angus Laing, dean of business and economics at Loughborough University and chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools, said universities must “join up our expertise across disciplines”.
“Business schools working with STEM faculty and other disciplines have the expertise to understand a business’ needs and the opportunities for commercialising research innovations,” he said. “Together, we can tackle the 32 per cent of businesses who feel their business potential is not understood.”
Ruth McKernan, chief executive of Innovate UK, said innovative SMEs will help “our world-class universities to turn excellence into economic impact”.
“The Dowling Review also highlights the importance of university-business collaboration and very much fits with my vision of where I want Innovate UK to go,” she said. “If we are funding quality research, we are selling the country short if we don’t find a way to translate that into business and economic value.”