Year of the dragon

June 4, 1999

Welsh centres of expertise are linking research innovators with businesses. Iola Smith reports on an initiative that is already attracting interest from abroad

Europe lags behind the US and Japan in creating wealth from innovation. And within Europe, regions such as Wales with few corporate headquarters have a tradition of low R&D expenditure." The speaker is Virginia Chambers, Development Director for Technology and Innovation at the Welsh Development Agency, whose job it is to do something about the problem.

Linking businesses with universities that can provide the requisite research expertise is a key part of the strategy.

As a first step, 35 centres of expertise have been established in colleges across the principality. They range from the Japanese Studies Centre at Cardiff University to Bangor's Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology that investigates the effects of consumer preferences on product design.

There are eight centres focusing on biology and medical research: the College of Medicine's Institute of Genetics, three investigating computing and artificial intelligence and four concentrating on the environment.

Manufacturing industry, materials science and semiconductors are the other research areas covered.

To encourage firms to use the centres, grants are available to cover half the research and development cost of preparing a new product or a new manufacturing process. Since this financial assistance became available in April 1998, 40 companies have embarked on joint projects with a centre of expertise.

"Initiatives include rapid prototyping to speed up the development process, introducing microelectronics to businesses and developing new testing equipment," said Steven Smith, the WDA's project development manager.

The centres of expertise approach has already attracted interest from Australian universities. Last autumn eight of the centres established research links with Australian academics specialising in similar topics. The hope is that this international relationship will allow new products to be created that will subsequently be manufactured by Welsh and Australian small firms.

This year the WDA has joined forces with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to invite universities to bid for management finance. In the past, centres have pointed out that they need a technical manager to strengthen links with local business. As a result, six specialists will be appointed, covering manufacturing, IT, materials science, bioscience, the environment and food industries.

This Pounds 900,000 three-year initiative is intended to significantly increase universities' involvement with the small business sector.

"There is no longer any question of the vital contribution which higher education institutions can make to their local and national economies," said John Andrews, HEFCW's chief executive.

Some disciplines have come together with industry to establish technology forums to promote best practice. Topics covered include medicine, materials science, optoelectronics, printing and computer-aided manufacturing.

Others have focused on founding spin-off companies, and institutions such as Swansea University and the College of Medicine have established business centres on their campuses.

The WDA has also established a graduate placement scheme where graduates can work for between six months and one year in a small business. Three hundred graduates have taken up this option, and many have been offered full-time jobs at their host company.

All these schemes are underpinned by Wales' regional technology plan, which was created in 1996 and is being supported by the European Union.

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