Research intelligence - Seeking savvy lab partners

A BBSRC scheme aims to find business experts who can help scientists commercialise research. Elinor Zuke reports

January 8, 2009

Business experts will be brought into university departments under a new programme that aims to turn laboratory findings into commercial products and services.

As Times Higher Education reported last week, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has earmarked £2 million for the Industrial Impact Fellowships scheme, which will fund universities to employ industry experts within existing research teams.

Ian Lyne, head of skills and careers at the BBSRC, said: "For a lot of academics, the main networks they move in are academic. They are fundamental and important, but it can mean a scientist in a university department doesn't have the familiarity with and exposure to the networks (that) someone in a commercial setting will have.

"Someone with a commercial background will have far more knowhow (about) how to translate research into a commercially viable service. Getting from the lab bench to a marketable product or service can be quite a complex process - (fellows) can bring their knowledge and skills to that process."

Dr Lyne said the ideal fellowship candidate would bring skills such as how to manage a research portfolio, spot opportunities and recognise where research has reached its limits commercially. The role could involve managing business development, liaising with industrial partners or overseeing the development of the commercial potential of research.

Candidates should have a PhD or equivalent professional experience.

Dr Lyne gave an example of how the fellowship might work in bioenergy.

"At the moment, we just don't know how to release the energy in the waste materials," he said. "Basic bioscience can help develop the breaking down of plant materials and use it for energy purposes. Food waste would be thrown away by the food manufacturer, but an industry expert could help a department get the most out of their research findings."

Not everyone has welcomed the initiative, which is part of a series of measures from all the research councils to improve the "economic impact" of the research they fund.

Malcolm Keight, the University and College Union's head of higher education, said: "While we understand the desire to bring research to the market as quickly as possible, a lot of university research, with the best will in the world, does not transfer automatically into commercial opportunities." Such fundamental research should not be neglected, he said.

Dr Lyne said he recognised "nervousness among some academics that we're giving up on fundamental research". He said academics should think of the potential impact all research could have beyond academia - and not just in a commercial sense.

"Traditionally, the danger is that research and new ideas just circulate within the academic environment without reaching a broader set of potential beneficiaries," he said. "There are a whole range of different impacts research can have. We think all research has the potential for impact of some sort, such as just exciting people about science and the marvellous things it's discovering.

"Commercial impact is only one form of impact - (but) it's a very important form, because our future prosperity does increasingly depend on the ability of research to be translated into products and services."

The scheme will fund between five and ten fellows for up to two years full-time, or the equivalent of full-time. Applications for a fellowship must be made through UK universities or institutions receiving substantial BBSRC funding for multi- or interdisciplinary research.

Dr Lyne said some industry experts may already have contacts with academic departments through collaborative work. Others may wish to consider universities near where they live. The BBSRC has a database in which anyone can look up the relevant research activity in their area, or within a certain department.

The exact role of the fellow within the research programme will be left to the applicant and host institution to devise, as will the issue of pay.

Dr Lyne said: "Individuals should be receiving a salary not wholly disproportionate to their colleagues', but we recognise that there may be a need for some sort of additional allowance, just to ensure the individual doesn't suffer a huge decline in salary.

"One can't expect individuals with the sorts of skills we're looking for to take a fellowship for a salary very much lower than they are used to. There are obviously sensitivities - if someone comes in and ends up earning as much as a vice-chancellor, there's the potential that their academic colleagues would not be best pleased," said Dr Lyne.

Most of the £2 million will be used to fund the fellows' salaries but some contribution will be made to covering the running costs of the host organisation.

Dr Lyne said the council would be sympathetic to an application that needed funding to support pilot trials to test ideas and new technology.

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