Research intelligence - Matchmaking creates good vibrations

KTPs bring together businesses and universities for their mutual benefit

December 6, 2012

Mission complete the university-business team that won the 2012 Best KTP Award collaborated on a project that cuts test-flight times for helicopters

The research behind this year’s best Knowledge Transfer Partnership began with a paper on rotor dynamics published in 1998. But according to Nick Lieven, pro vice-chancellor at the University of Bristol, where the work took place, since then it had gone “nowhere”.

“Yet within two months of it being used by the firm, it was being flown on aircraft,” he explained, delighted at the project’s success.

Bristol’s collaboration with helicopter maintenance firm Helitune was the overall Best KTP Award winner at a ceremony in London on 22 November that celebrated the leading partnerships out of the 800 carried out this year.

KTPs, funded by the Technology Strategy Board, bring graduates (known as associates) together with companies or third-sector organisations that have a particular problem to solve. In the case of Helitune, customers wanted to cut the number of test-flight hours needed to adjust vibrations to safe levels.

“The knowledge was missing in our company,” explained Peter Morrish, technology manager at Helitune. “Our customers were experiencing a problem that, within our team, we weren’t able to solve.”

Through Bristol associates Steve Pollard and Richard Hunt, the company applied the research - an algorithm that processes in-flight data on rotors and generates suitable adjustments - to reduce the test-flight time by up to 50 per cent. Among the customers using the technology are the UK’s Ministry of Defence (with which the company now has a £1.3 million contract), the Italian forestry commission and the US Coast Guard.

Speaking at the KTP Awards 2012, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said that the scheme, which has run in some form for 35 years, was an example of what made the UK one of the best places in the world for quality business-university collaboration in research and development.

“We do sometimes beat up on ourselves in Britain saying that the links between universities and businesses are not strong enough and that we should do better - and of course we can always improve. But we are not as bad as we sometimes think we are,” he said.

Finalists for the award also included Clyde Space and the University of Strathclyde, whose collaboration helped the company win a contract from the UK Space Agency to build UKube-1, the UK’s first nanosatellite system.

Projects outside the hard sciences were also successful. Katie Flaherty from De Montfort University was named a “Business leader of tomorrow” for her work raising the profile of Phoenix, a Leicester arts centre, which led to it securing £450,000 in grants from Arts Council England.

According to Mr Willetts, overall in 2010-11 the KTP scheme created 39 jobs and leveraged more than £1.5 million in industry investment for each £1 million of government funding. The fact that more than 73 per cent of associates are offered permanent employment at the end of their projects demonstrated the value of the scheme to business, he said, but participation leads to benefits for academics, too.

“We know that the learning they have from this practical experience is fed back into research. To conduct world-class research you often need the stimulation of what is happening in the external world, and this provides such a stimulus,” he said.

Praise, but less cash

But behind the great successes showcased at the event and in contrast with the minister’s praise for KTPs is a reality in which the scheme has faced significant cuts since the government came to power.

Funding for KTPs fell from £40 million in 2008-09 to about £30 million in 2011-12. After the event, Iain Gray, chief executive of the TSB, told Times Higher Education that cuts to the KTP budget were the result of a general squeeze on the innovation budget and were made worse by the demise of the regional development agencies, which in 2008-09 contributed almost £5 million a year to the programme.

The number of partnerships has fallen from an average of 1,000 - with a peak of almost 1,200 - to 800, Mr Gray said. “We’ve stayed absolutely committed to the scheme the whole way through, but we did have to put the brakes on a bit.”

According to Bristol’s Professor Lieven, the regional agencies did more than just fund partnerships. The South West of England Regional Development Agency was instrumental in bringing the university and the company together, he said. “They formed the links that put us together, because we wouldn’t have known about each other otherwise.”

He declined to comment on whether he thought the new local enterprise partnerships - brought in by the coalition after it abolished regional development agencies - would be able to fill the gap. “We look forward to the RDAs being reformed in some guise in the future,” he said.

Speaking to THE, Debbie Buckley-Golder, head of knowledge exchange at the TSB, said interest in KTPs remained high. The board was working with other funders, such as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the research councils, to fill the gap, she said. “We’re all the time adding new funders and talking to a number of others to put up significant sums of money.”

Mr Gray added that if KTPs remained successful, there was no reason the number could not increase again. “But this isn’t KTPs for KTPs’ sake,” he said. “It’s because it’s a good way for business and universities to interact with each other.”

Although at the awards some institutions seemed to be especially successful - in particular Queen’s University Belfast, which picked up two awards and was nominated for another - no single “type” of university was necessarily better than another at KTPs, and new universities were as proficient as research-intensives, Ms Buckley-Golder added.

The reason that some institutions were more successful than others was down to having a critical mass of projects and systematic support across the institution, Mr Gray said. But the benefits for academics, as well as businesses, in taking part meant that more universities should get involved, he added.

Professor Lieven agreed. By sharing his intellectual property with Helitune through the partnership, five other projects had followed, he said. Since the partnership, the university has attracted a threefold increase in industrial-related funding in mechanical science and introduced an industry-relevant final-year degree module in rotorcraft dynamics.

“We do need a better understanding of what fundamental research can do for industry and not be precious about industry using it,” he said. “I just said, ‘Go away and use the IP.’ I’m never going to produce a helicopter - that’s not what the University of Bristol does.”

In accepting the Best KTP Award, Professor Lieven made an impassioned plea that the scheme be spared future cuts. “UK plc is likely to go through some tough times. I would be a strong advocate for this approach,” he added. “It got us through the valley of death.”

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