Regional approach seeks to enhance links with

June 22, 2007

Hundreds of academics from 17 universities in the Midlands and the North of England are to be involved in new collaborations between higher education and industry.

The architects and champions of the schemes argue that they offer a fresh regional approach to collaboration between universities and businesses that will open up new research and funding opportunities for academics taking part in them.

Institutions have been searching for ways to help companies make more use of the expertise they have to offer since the Lambert review set this out as a challenge four years ago.

Now leaders of the N8 group of northern universities and the ICT cluster of nine universities in the West Midlands believe they have come up with a formula that could provide a model for faster progress on the Lambert agenda.

In each case, specific sectors and areas of expertise are being targeted to exploit the strengths of the universities involved, and a supporting framework providing contact points between academics and companies has been set up.

N8, which officially launched its initiative two weeks ago, is aiming to bring academics and industry representatives together to create forward-looking research projects in regenerative medicine, ageing and health, energy, sustainable water use, and molecular engineering.

David Secher, N8’s chief executive, said: “For the individual academic it means that there are some exciting research programmes being put together in these areas where the framework for talking to industry is built in right from the beginning.”

In the West Midlands, nine universities have set up “ICT innovation clubs”, with each one focusing on a particular field in which to work with small and medium-sized businesses in the region, such as medical technologies, wireless, film and video and computer games.

Pat Costello, West Midlands ICT cluster innovation manager, who is a principal lecturer in ICT at Wolverhampton University, said: “This initiative offers academics the chance to look at
real-world business problems and could provide particular inspiration for young academics who may have just completed their PhD and are trying to decide what areas to specialise in.”

The two initiatives have been warmly welcomed by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, which has been calling for a more targeted regional approach to industry links.

Richard Brown, the CIHE’s chief executive, said: “This sounds like exactly the right way to work with industry, by identifying the niche needs of organisations that otherwise might not know what expertise there is in their local universities.”

Links with industry are an increasingly important source of funding for many institutions, he added. But he warned that efforts to capitalise on this would fail unless academics were given enough time and recognition for this kind of work.

“If institutions truly see this as important then they need to put in place reward systems that say it is valuable. They will need to include it in their criteria for promotion, as well as giving academics enough opportunity to do it,” he said.

Xin Yao, professor of computer science at Birmingham University, which has set up an intelligent ICT solutions innovation club, said that the initiative gave academics the chance to get ideas from industry for new research projects that could lead to publications and papers.

But he added: “One potential downside is that not every interaction with business is going to lead to interesting research projects. So academics need to be given the time to do this work, otherwise they might feel it is not worth the risk.”

Stuart Slater, a senior lecturer in ICT at Wolverhampton University, said one of the best things about the innovation clubs was that they were backed with funding from the local regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands. “That means we are allocated the time to work on projects. It’s a very unusual opportunity to get academics together in one room with representatives from local companies to discuss possible projects. It’s a very exciting development.”

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