Figures from the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) show that in 2016-17 there were nearly 103,000 interactions between universities and businesses. So, how and why are so many businesses working with universities?
1. You can get access to amazing facilities and equipment
Any business looking for new equipment to support research and development, product testing or quality control would do well to start with their local university. Many universities now have high-end equipment that businesses can use, for a modest fee or sometimes even free of charge.
A good example at the University is the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC), which has a range of state-of-the-art microscopy equipment. PEMC has a history of working with businesses across the South West, including Langage Farm, the Barden Corporation and Fine Tubes. Growing numbers of businesses rely on the facility for quality control, failure analysis and new product development.
PEMC’s latest piece of equipment, a Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM), is only the second in the country to be made available for commercial use by a university. It can simultaneously scan, analyse and mill through a range of materials, creating digital 3D models at a nanoscale. Thanks to a £1.7 million grant from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund, more than 40 Devon businesses will get free access to the equipment between now and the end of 2020.
Ask your local university what facilities and equipment they can offer to businesses and you may be surprised at what you find.
2. They’re a hot bed of ideas and talent
If you are looking to innovate – perhaps to develop a new product or process – you may well need a new perspective to give you fresh ideas. Universities have a wealth of knowledge and talent, from world class academic researchers to students. Many academics need to work with industry partners to support their research, so working together can often be a win-win for both parties. These partnerships often deliver truly groundbreaking results. At Plymouth, for example, researchers in our medical school are working with leading biotech company Ingenza Ltd to develop innovative solutions to the global problem of antibiotic resistance.
At Plymouth we also set up collaborations between businesses and our talented design students. ION Studio gives businesses and organisations from any sector access to the latest design talent from our School of Art, Design and Architecture. Our students are employed by the studio full-time in June and July, offering businesses a range of services from graphic design to film, photography and 3D modelling. We are expecting a number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to take advantage of this over the summer.
3. They could offer you space for your growing business
Growing numbers of universities have space that businesses can rent – often at very competitive rates. Our Formation Zone offers space for start ups, either here in Plymouth or at our three innovation centres across Cornwall. Many universities, including ours, have a science park. Plymouth Science Park offers more than just high quality office space – it houses a community of ambitious businesses that benefit from a range of support.
Your local university will be able to advise you on whether you would be eligible to take a space in one of these centres. On the whole, there are criteria that need to be met, but you do not generally need to have had any previous involvement with the university.
4. It could lead to funding and support
Nationally, there is a focus on productivity and a drive to bridge the knowledge gap and support innovation. To achieve this, the Government is encouraging collaboration between the business and higher education communities. The thinking behind this is that by working together, businesses and universities can come up with new solutions to problems. That could mean developing new commercially-viable technology based on the latest research discoveries or finding more efficient business models, using academic insights.
Joint working between a business and university can sometimes pave the way for Government funding. For example, Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) programme can support businesses to bring in new knowledge by working with a university and a graduate. Plymouth was one of the first universities to engage with the KTP programme and is now running a number of successful KTPs across the South West and beyond.
The Industrial Strategy is another good example. Universities, including Plymouth, are seeking industry partnerships to respond to the Grand Challenges, which have been set up to boost the UK’s productivity and earning power.
Businesses are not always aware of the funding they could access through these programmes. Contact your local university and they should be able to advise you on the opportunities.
5. Universities understand businesses better than ever before
Yes, there are still big differences between the corporate world and academia (and, of course, you could argue that’s a good thing). However, I have seen a real step change in the way universities work with businesses. Increasingly, academics are focusing on how their research can help solve real world problems and for that they often need the input of businesses, charities or public sector organisations. Many universities also now offer a range of services specifically for businesses.
So, forget any notions of dusty books and ivory towers. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much your local university understands the needs of your business.