When the Technology Strategy Board launched its latest delivery plan earlier this month, it did so with more cash to spend than ever before.
Now five years old, the board has become the go-to agency for the government in its attempts to boost economic growth. Today, a vast array of public research and collaboration schemes are being channelled through its coffers.
But because the board is a relatively new agency, companies and universities are sometimes unsure about how and where it chooses to distribute funding, particularly when compared with more established funders such as the UK research councils.
David Bott, director of innovation programmes at the Technology Strategy Board, told Times Higher Education that the body plans to clarify the range of programmes and fields in which it invests as its spending rises. Not all of the board's programmes have an academic element, but of the budget of about £390 million for 2012-13, some £100 million will go to universities through academic-business collaborations.
The board is unapologetically business-led, but universities realise the opportunities and understand their potential role in turning research into growth, said Dr Bott.
"Our bigger challenge is to make [small and medium-sized enterprises] aware of...the value of working with universities. I spent my life in large companies with good academic relations, but if you're a small company, you don't know what you don't know," said Dr Bott.
Some £160 million of Technology Strategy Board funding is channelled through its collaborative research and development scheme, of which around 20 per cent goes to universities. Thematic areas of investment are chosen for their growth potential, but are also in fields where the government has some control and social responsibility, such as the built environment, energy, healthcare, transport and food.
Dr Bott said that collaboration with universities came "not because we mandate it: it's because the companies we support see the value of working with those universities".
The academy is also likely to receive around half of the £180 million "biomedical catalyst" initiative, jointly funded by the board and the Medical Research Council, which aims to bring the results of healthcare research to the market.
'Proven to work'
But for many universities, especially post-1992s, the board's best-known and most valued scheme is the knowledge transfer partnership programme (although it has reduced in size over the past two years).
KTPs bring graduates to work in businesses on specific projects and have been "proven to work", according to the review of university-business interaction led by Sir Tim Wilson, former vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.
"The experience of the Association for University Research and Industry Links (Auril) is that industry very strongly values KTPs," said David McBeth, director of research and knowledge exchange services at the University of Strathclyde and chairman of Auril.
"They are what you might call a 'stepping-stone product' - a step to more confident relationships between universities and companies. I think the [board] is committed to them but sometimes doesn't realise quite what a jewel in the crown they are."
Another scheme that targets universities directly is the innovation voucher programme, under which small- to medium-sized enterprises receive funding to hire university time and staff to carry out research.
The Technology Strategy Board plans to invest around £1.9 million in the scheme and hopes to open a national programme to fit all similar existing projects together as a "one-stop shop for companies" looking to access skills they do not have.
Despite the broad range of schemes under the board's banner, Dr McBeth said the organisation had greatly improved its interaction with universities in recent years.
"Could it do more? I guess everyone could, but I would say I'm very pleased with the extent to which that outreach has happened," he said.
The board's business focus and targeted application requirements can vary greatly from other funding agencies, he added.
"Dialogue quite often starts very early. It's not so arm's length and is much more about building a consensus, but then at the end of it you are highly likely to be fundable."
But not all universities are equally engaged. Ensuring systematic collaboration with business is not always an easy task, Dr Bott said.
"[University] technology transfer offices can make it easier to find and make new relations or they can make it more difficult, for example by being more dogmatic about intellectual property," he said.
Although many have industry interaction "in their DNA", universities in general needed to be more flexible, he added.
"In the good old days, [businesses would] say, 'We want to work with you,' and universities would ask for money for a three-year postdoc. In recent years we've found other ways of doing it, but some are still holding on to the old ways."
According to Stephen Caddick, vice-provost for enterprise at University College London, the critical factor in collaboration is striking a balance between academic and commercial goals. "I think that we have to make sure that the money that is invested by the taxpayer into UK universities delivers a return...[but] that's a complicated analysis," he said.
One area in which academics agree that the board needs to improve its university outreach is its network of Catapult centres, formerly known as Technology Innovation Centres, which will receive funding of £200 million spread over four years.
The seven centres, designed to bring together in a single physical site the leading academic and business players in a technological area, were announced in late 2010. Three are already under way, with the rest due to become operational next year.
Although many Catapults involve universities, only one has any of its components based in an academic centre.
Thus far, UCL's involvement in the programme has been "variable", Professor Caddick said.
"I think there is huge expectation on Catapult centres. I think it's really challenging and there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to see the optimised model," he said.
Dr McBeth said that because the Catapults have been implemented at such a rapid pace, it has not been easy to disseminate a fixed model for how they will work.
"There is a degree of uncertainty from parts of the higher education sector as to how or if they'll be able to play their part," he said.
Kieron Flanagan, lecturer in science and technology policy and management at Manchester Business School, said that university involvement in the Catapults is essential given that the academy is the UK's primary source of research expertise.
But a vital aim, and one that is always found in applied research, will be to mobilise the strength of universities without allowing them to dominate the agenda, he added.
"Generally I think the [board], together with the research councils, should be looking at moderating the incentive system that operates in universities so that it rewards good applied research," Dr Flanagan said.
This would stop it being "pushed or crowded out by research excellence framework considerations", he added.
|Technology strategy board's top academic partners (live schemes, March 2012)|
|Collaborative R&D||Value||Knowledge transfer partnerships||Value|
|Imperial College London||£6,678,823||Queen’s University Belfast||£2,433,226|
|University of Cambridge||£6,301,117||Cardiff University||£2,117,716|
|University College London||£5,426,229||University of Sheffield||£2,100,578|
|University of Leeds||£5,169,519||University of Strathclyde||£2,062,853|
|University of Southampton||£4,224,121||University of Leeds||£2,022,290|
|University of Warwick||£4,054,683||University of Reading||£1,977,872|
|Loughborough University||£3,917,181||London South Bank University||£1,696,699|
|University of Sheffield||£3,791,760||University of Wolverhampton||£1,689,211|
|Cranfield University||£3,745,350||University of Bath||£1,629,604|
|University of Nottingham||£3,564,165||Aston University||£1,616,214|