The Cutty Sark's future was in doubt long before it was devastated by fire last May.
Three years ago a study found that the 138-year-old ship was disintegrating and predicted that it would fall apart within ten years if nothing was done.
A £25 million conservation project was launched, and when the ship went up in flames, the restoration project meant that many of its original timbers were stored away from the site in safety.
Now academics from the University of Greenwich, who assessed the state of the fragile ship using innovative modelling techniques before the restoration project began, were last week honoured at the year's Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) awards.
Chris Bailey and Stoyan Stoyanov of the university's School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences were asked to assist by experts from the Cutty Sark Trust, who feared that the restoration process itself could endanger the crumbling structure.
They developed finite element analysis techniques to test how the wood and metal components would behave during renovation.
It was this analysis that led to the restoration project winning £13 million in lottery funding, and to the team winning recognition at the awards in London.
The collaboration also aimed to establish the technique as a marketable service that the Cutty Sark Trust could offer to other ship restoration projects in the future.
Professor Bailey said: "I'm used to working with high-tech companies, but it was really exciting to apply the technology to another sector, the heritage sector.
"This has opened up a whole new research area - my area is computer-aided engineering, and this has opened a new area of computer-aided conservation.
"Inevitably, there was also research in this project that could be relevant to the research assessment exercise. From an academic point of view it has been very worthwhile."
The project was one of ten winners at the annual awards run by the KTP, which is a programme headed by the Technology Strategy Board to promote third-stream activities in higher education.
In the keynote speech at the awards ceremony last week, Jonathan Kestenbaum, chief executive of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, said that the UK would face a "very uncertain future" if businesses and universities did not work together on innovation.
Warning that an historic reliance on a skills monopoly will no longer be viable as countries such as China and India develop, he said: "Whereas we once optimised efficiency, we now need to optimise innovation. There is simply no other way."
Innovative societies, he argued, are built on a three-pronged foundation.
"The first is the power of collaboration," he said. "I'm not that fond of the phrase, but innovation is a contact sport - people bumping up against each other in different ways.
"The second is the role of capital. Don't underestimate the role of small, catalytic amounts of capital that may not always be looking for an immediate return. Innovation is a long process and you have to stick with it.
"The third is belief. In 1961, President Kennedy stood up in front of Congress and said the US would put a man on the Moon within ten years.
"That powerful, galvanising statement mobilised the imagination, aspiration and belief of tens of thousands of engineers, technologists, designers and academics.
"That sense of national galvanisation is more significant in fostering an innovative society than all the regulation, tax cuts and bureaucracy in the world.
"Nothing less than the future of Britain, both in terms of its competitiveness and social wellbeing, is at stake when it comes to galvanising that power, potential and passion."
KTP AWARDS HONOUR THIRD-STREAM SUCCESSES
In addition to the University of Greenwich and Cutty Sark Trust partnership, the 2008 winners include:
- A collaboration between Cranfield University and the Arriva Group, which operates rail and bus services. Their aim was to reduce accident rates on Arriva's UK bus services by designing a psychometric test for risk assessment, a bus-driving simulator, and new training and recruitment policies. Accidents were cut, and absenteeism, turnover and insurance claims were also reduced.
- Academic expertise at the University of Bradford's School of Engineering, Design and Technology was applied to improve the durability of an artificial ski-slope surface manufactured by a local firm.
- The University of Strathclyde worked with a manufacturer of window frames to adapt manufacturing software to improve efficiency.
- Bournemouth University helped to set up a performance monitoring and management framework for a housing charity's structure and funding.
- Heriot-Watt University collaborated with a firm that recycles metals for the aerospace industry to reduce volatile organic compound emissions.
- Queen's University Belfast joined forces with a company that produces proteins and antibodies, to identify and develop improved research techniques.
- Manchester Metropolitan University worked with an organic frozen foods company to develop a business and marketing strategy.
- Gorseinon College in Wales helped an IT firm to develop a marketing strategy.
- The University of Hertfordshire was asked by a provider of occupational health services to develop a way of measuring levels of stress.
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