Towards the end of 2013, the Witty Review of universities and growth called for 'collaborative projects to develop new technologies' to help universities engage with businesses. The review asked the Government to pledge at least £1bn over the life of the next parliament to foster collaborations between universities and business and encourage innovation.
Since 2011, 20 Jisc-funded projects have been exploring ways in which web technologies can support aspirations like these. We’ve just published a guide describing what we’ve learned. Caroline Ingram, Jisc team manager, business and community engagement explains more...
There are powerful reasons why colleges and universities might want to improve their collaborations with business, not least because they could find practical applications for research innovations. There is also the potential to develop new income streams through consultancy and other opportunities.
Existing and emerging technologies already offer ways to help universities and colleges to collaborate and compete for partnership and business opportunities. We’ve also been exploring ways to create simple platforms and communication channels that can make it all much easier and more fruitful.
Simon Whittemore, Jisc head of change – enterprise, says:
“Digital technology is transforming university external engagement, whether through customer relationship management, LinkedIn or online collaboration and open innovation. As small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are time poor and resource poor, online engagement can be a highly effective way of interacting with them.”
Between 2011 and 2013, 20 varied projects have been exploring the use of innovative web technologies for open Innovation and access to resources (OIA2R). The outcomes have now been gathered together in partnerships for progress, a synthesis report that includes case studies, calls to action and guidance to help colleges and universities get started on their own collaborations with business.
There were two main objectives:
- First - improving access to information, knowledge and development opportunities
- Second - enhancing the capability in universities and colleges to generate innovation through collaboration and to make a strong contribution to boosting the UK’s economy and its standing on the global stage as an innovation leader.
Effective end user engagement
Each project was encouraged to establish a clear need or opportunity so that they were delivering practical and demonstrable benefit to all parties.
Take Interface in Edinburgh, a hub that matches businesses to appropriate academic expertise in one of Scotland’s higher education and research institutions. Through their Openbiz project, Interface piloted ways to blend online and face-to-face methods to engage businesses to tap into knowledge and expertise in Scottish universities.
Recognising that SMEs are often unable or unwilling to devote time to engage with universities unless there is a compelling case that benefits their business directly, Openbiz presented businesses with choices about how and when to connect. By embracing multiple online channels (webinars, YouTube, Twitter and a business relevant iPhone app) they opened up business access to university services.
In addition, webinar events provided a significant opportunity for colleges and universities to engage widely with SMEs. Communications focused on the clear business benefits for the SMEs, such as enhanced profitability, reduced costs, reputational gain and new opportunities.
Opening up access to institutional knowledge
The partnership at the heart of the myKE project is between Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Manchester and the knowledge intensive businesses on 'corridor Manchester'. These together have a 55,000 strong workforce and cover some 243 hectares.
The exact requirements for the myKE system were established throughout the project with 'co-creation' input from the target users of the system. Their open source technology solution can be easily customised to suit any similar partnership across the UK or even internationally and it is particularly suited to a partnership context. This is because businesses can easily search valuable knowledge-rich resources from a range of well-respected institutions.
Effecting institutional change
While the UK’s economic recovery remains fragile, university intellectual property (IP) and new technology developments could do much to boost its commercial innovation. So it’s a sad reality that reduced public funding, as well as insufficient expertise in “proof of concept”, are together hindering many viable innovations from making it through the early stages.
Liverpool John Moores University has taken a strategic approach to open up IP and commercialisation by using crowd-based techniques and open innovation. The Open LivIn project manager has shown that one person can achieve a lot when embedded in the right network.
The Open LivIn social network platform – the Innovation Commons – collects early-stage ideas for exploitation. The team uses crowd-sourcing techniques for project selection and carries out match-making to link ideas with people cost effectively and rapidly. As Emma Nolan, Open Livin project manager put it:
“The Innovation Commons provides the opportunity for new business while reducing the cost of securing new business”.
In trials, entrepreneur consultants were engaged with the process and universities got good feedback on their IP propositions, with new projects receiving commercialisation support. The project avoided the 'build it and they will come' approach. Instead, the project team put lots of effort into the community development aspect of the work.
This resulted in more than 80 entrepreneur consultants getting involved and enabled the team to test key hypotheses to ensure that they were fit for purpose before being hard-wired into the system.
Feedback from participants shows that enthusiasm for the approach was strong:
“Anything that helps engineer the right connections and new business with a reduced effort has to be good. The Innovation Commons has done that for me.”
Cath Whitaker, managing director Team Services
“The Government is keen to encourage links between universities and industry but both parties need to be carefully selective in choosing and promoting commercialisation projects. The Innovation Commons provide a means for commercially aware people to filter new IP, and for universities to approve commercial projects led by experienced folk able to achieve significant income for the university.”
Dick West, West & Co Tech Management
Overall, Open LivIn has expanded the possibilities for commercialisation, whatever size a university’s knowledge transfer office may be.
The Witty Review called for 'collaborative projects to develop new technologies' to help universities engage with businesses. And, in common with the BCE OIA2R initiative, Andrew Witty recommends incentivising universities to offer innovative SMEs expertise, support with technology and know-how.
These projects have demonstrated evidence of the growing role of universities and colleges in leading innovation, business growth and knowledge exploitation. The publication of the 'partnerships for progress' guidance will help universities and colleges to get to grips with their own BCE initiatives, to avoid pitfalls and to optimise the benefits that are likely to result.
This article originally featured in issue 39 of Jisc Inform (UK web archive).