Firms help square academic circle

November 5, 1999

Academics and industrialists mistrust one another. Neither group understands what motivates the other and they clash culturally.

This was a common thread in a joint debate between 100 academics and industrialists taking part in an experimental joint debate at Heriot-Watt University last week. But they also agreed that communication was the way forward.

The "Open Space" debate, organised by Heriot-Watt and Glasgow universities, was designed to aid communication. With no agenda, delegates sat in a large circle and the bolder individuals flagged up their concerns on a flipchart. The discussion was filtered into smaller "break-out" groups, more flipcharting, and back to full group meetings.

A professional facilitator, Kerry Napuk, chivvied, cajoled and encouraged the participants.

Eleanor Taylor of Scottish Enterprise convened the best-

attended group. She wanted advice on how to administer the Pounds 11 million for innovation just announced by Henry McLeish, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, to bridge the development gap between a discovery and a prototype.

The group decided that proposals needed good and quick feedback and decisions. Panels making decisions should include Scots and international members to avoid accusations of cronyism.

In other groups, academics asked how they could get companies to "stop whingeing" about universities and come and do business with them. Entrepreneurs complained that industrial liaison officers acted as gatekeepers.

Finally, the groups' priorities were written on posters and delegates chose their favourite.

The winner was an annual "research fashion show" at which academics could display their wares to potential investors, who would have the carrot of matched funding from government. Institutions were urged to carry out not only subject research but market research into the needs of small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Organiser Kevin Cullen, Glasgow's research and enterprise operations manager, said: "People are interested in practical mechanisms for enabling investors to see what technologies we have. We're being asked to market to SMEs, but we don't know who they are. The universities need to get out there."

But it was also up the SMEs to make themselves more accessible to universities, he said.

"It's starting. Both sides are shouting across the bridge 'Come out to the middle'."

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