Get talking – fostering commercial and academic collaboration

Materials World magazine
3 Sep 2015

Ian Sharp heads the Commercial Relations Team within Edinburgh Research and Innovation, a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Edinburgh, where his team is responsible for establishing and developing long-term strategic relationships with commercial partners. Ian works across a range of industry sectors, linking them to academic staff and research groups. Prior to joining ERI, Ian worked with the Ministry of Defence and QinetiQ, as well as providing consultancy for a range of clients in the UK.

Fostering commercial and academic collaboration

Innovation is more than just a buzzword – it is important to both industry and academia, both of which are under ever-increasing pressure to maximise outputs from both resources and time.

These two groups, with seemingly different goals and interests, can become a powerful force for innovation when joined together. Universities provide major resources for those companies pursuing an innovation strategy, and in turn, companies can help to deliver the impact from university research, which is a critical output for academics. Both points are often overlooked or misunderstood by both parties.

But how do these valuable relationships start and how can they be nurtured to fulfil their true potential?

Traditionally, collaborations grew from personal contacts between an academic and company employees and were often focused on a very specific problem, based on a single academic discipline. While this model provided successful outputs, it did not always maximise the potential for long-term innovation and the continued impact of academic research on businesses’ technologies and services.

Fast-forward to today and the focus is shifting away from single, short-term interactions towards the realisation of the value of long-term strategic relationships. Universities and industry have had to find new ways to not only start collaborations, but allow them to flourish.

One of academia’s greatest assets is the breadth and depth of knowledge available, but companies have historically found this difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.   Providing productive mechanisms and opportunities for companies to meet and engage with academics from various disciplines has become paramount in order to build trust and foster innovation.

One example of how collaboration is initiated and fostered successfully is through the University of Edinburgh’s AIMday series. AIMday, or Academic Industry Meeting day is based on a concept developed by Uppsala University, Sweden, to facilitate meaningful and productive collaborations between industry and academia. Companies submit a question or commercial challenge within the chosen AIMday topic and academics from across the university with relevant knowledge attend a one-hour workshop face-to-face with the company to discuss possible pathways to a solution. The workshop mixes a range of academic disciplines together with real industry needs for a short period of time, but enough to spark innovation and produce creative solutions to the commercial opportunities presented.

More generally, the focus for the future has to be firmly on long-term collaboration and mutual benefit, not just at the University of Edinburgh, but for academia as a whole. To bridge the gap between academia and industry, universities must be proactive in facilitating collaboration, articulating the benefits of applying their cutting-edge research and blue-sky thinking to real world problems. In this way, universities will begin to be viewed as vital innovation hubs for industry to draw upon, in the creation of new innovative products and services. Only then can cutting-edge research be consistently applied to real world problems. These symbiotic relationships will benefit British industry as a whole and further increase the impact of today’s research on society.