The power of partnerships

Dr Steve Welch explains the huge benefits UK construction and civils can reap from partnerships with academia

We know that necessity breeds innovation – and that innovation has never been more necessary. In times of economic uncertainty, the UK has always relied on the kind of actionable research and development that can have a direct impact on the economy to steer its way back to prosperity. And I think we can all agree that this is one of those times.

But, despite a long history of top tier R&D and an international reputation for innovation, UK businesses can be rather reticent when it comes to seeking out academic partners to help change and expand their operations to take the business forward for the future. In fact, when it comes to filling a capability gap to implement strategic change or when expertise is needed to realise an innovation opportunity, partnerships with academia are often not even on the radar.

Perhaps businesses are simply unaware of the exceptional resources – often on their doorstep – that may be available to them. Perhaps they are unsure about how to go about accessing them. Or maybe there are misconceptions or assumptions about working with universities.

Businesses stand to gain from a whole host of benefits if they are able to capitalise on a gap in the market, a technological advancement, a new growth or strategic opportunity: new products, new solutions, new markets, a competitive edge, positive societal or environmental impact, the list is long; but being able to implement this potential often critically depends on fresh inputs.

One of the conventional approaches would be to employ someone with the skills needed to plug the gap in the company’s expertise. This is a pragmatic solution, but can come with risk; as markets change, projects sometimes flex beyond the expertise you originally thought was necessary, and sometimes personalities just clash. You’re locked in long-term.

Then there are common challenges that many businesses, especially SMEs, face – redirecting resource when you have problems in other areas of the business is very much a day-to-day reality and in fact one of the benefits of operating a small, agile business. But when you have an in-house R&D project operating in that kind of environment, it can quickly lose focus and may never come to fruition.

Another option is the consultancy route – more flexible than employing someone, but consultants tend to be significantly more expensive than employees in the short-term. Often, the expertise leaves at the end of the consultancy period too.

Finally, there is partnership. Partnerships between business and academia are a really powerful way to deliver on innovation projects without the cons that come with the other approaches, particularly when they are brokered and guided by an experienced third party.

One of the benefits of co-creating a partnership in this way is that pitfalls can be avoided from the outset – only projects with a real business case will get through quality filters, and objectives for each project can be rigorously developed from the outset. The process of forming the collaborative partnership often identifies new opportunities too, opening up possibilities for bigger, wider impacts.

At KTN, one of the many ways we facilitate collaborations, particularly with business, is through an Innovate UK programme we help to deliver called Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs). Via our national network of specialist Advisers, we help bring together a business, an academic team and a graduate or post-graduate to form a KTP, each project benefiting from the sheer size of our organisation, the knowledge and experience of our innovation network and from Innovate UK funding.

Partnerships of this nature can help to de-risk R&D, while bringing about positive impact for all three partners (a prerequisite of the programme): companies gain access to fresh thinking, deep expertise and R&D facilities resulting in real innovation outcomes, increased profit/efficiency, and perhaps even a change in culture to become a more R&D focused business; universities gain from being able to apply their academic knowledge to solve real world challenges; the grad or post-grad employed as the project manager (known as the KTP Associate) leads a real project that brings about positive change and which may provide them with a fantastic career springboard. In the case of KTP, something like 70 per cent of the Associates end up being employed by the business they’re working with.

And it’s not just theoretical. Around 12,000 companies have engaged in KTP from a whole host of different industries. One example from the construction/civils industry is the partnership between FP McCann and Queen’s University Belfast.

The two partnered after FP McCann identified a need for a more modern, more robust, sustainable drainage system for communities badly affected by flooding, and recognised that it needed a new understanding of complex flow systems comprising multiphase flow (air, water, oil) coupled with discrete particle sediment) tracking.

The partnership recruited as its KTP Associate Muddasar Anwar, whose background was in aerospace engineering rather than civils. Together, benefiting from cross disciplinary approaches, the partnership was able to expand the company’s expertise and develop a state-of-the-art prototype product that can remove gross pollutants (sediment, hydrocarbons, rubbish) from stormwater runoff.

Above and beyond the initial competitive edge, the impact of this partnership will be permanent because of the embedded knowledge and experience gained.

In all walks of life, partnerships are not easy. Making them work is a skill unto itself. But projects like this have become par for the course at KTN. When a third party contributes its expertise to help partnerships succeed, and has the ability to identify and progress appropriate innovation projects, a lot of the obstacles that might prevent businesses from engaging with academic partners are removed. And, In the spirit of true partnership, all parties [in a KTP] benefit from working together.

No matter what you do or the size of your business, I urge you to think about how much you could benefit from the power of academic partnerships.

Dr Steve Welch is Director of Ideas at KTN, one of the UK’s most powerful resources for facilitating collaboration and driving R&D. It has been behind many of the country’s most successful research, development and innovation partnerships.

KTN exists to connect innovators with new partners and new opportunities beyond their existing thinking – accelerating ambitious ideas into real-world solutions. Its diverse connections span business, government, funders, research and the third sector.
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