Business matters: why collaboration holds the key to economic growth

Business matters: why collaboration holds the key to economic growth

"After the global financial crisis, governments are looking for new ways to grow their economies. Universities are on hand to help."

Universities have been collaborating with business for decades and on the whole we do it extremely well. We have been engaged in knowledge transfer, partnering on research, nurturing enterprise and building hubs of economic activity in our regions, all with great success but often out of the glare of publicity.

Sir Andrew Witty’s recent review shone a spotlight on the relationship between our two sectors. His report underlines the role of universities in generating economic growth and makes the compelling argument that more could be done to create a better environment to exploit the innovation and technological breakthroughs that happen in our universities. With the right formula, the rewards for the economy and society would be significant.

The advantages of collaboration are many and varied. Universities provide industry with the highly-skilled and adaptable graduates they require and training opportunities for existing staff. Many - including Southampton - contribute to economic growth more directly with the creation of new enterprises supported through science parks and incubator centres.

UK universities work with a huge range of businesses, from small, specialised local companies to large multi-nationals. Our own collaboration with Southampton-based boat propeller manufacturer CJR Propulsion has enabled the application of computational fluid dynamics to advanced propeller design, resulting in their propellers becoming the product of choice for performance boats manufactured across Europe. Similarly, our work with specialist marine exhaust manufacturer Halyard on the design of boat exhaust systems has helped position that company as a global leader of silencer systems.

In both cases, their relationship with the university has provided market advantage through innovation, helping to solve real-time business problems and maintain competitiveness. It is no coincidence that Silicon Valley grew up around one of the United States’ most prestigious universities, Stanford, and that the heady combination of academic and business expertise was crucial to its success.  

Following the global financial crisis of 2008, with governments under pressure to find new ways to grow their economies, politicians have been actively looking to universities to help drive economic growth.

Southampton itself is part of a new venture which aims to do for the engineering and maritime sector what Silicon Valley did for the electronics industry in northern California. Together with maritime specialists Lloyd’s Register, we are investing over £140m in an integrated engineering campus to create one of the world’s largest university-business collaborations. Together, academics and technology specialists will work closely on projects related to the safety of ships, crew, passengers and goods, and finding solutions to challenges faced by marine and offshore industries.

The scale of this collaboration between the University and Lloyd’s Register may be unique, but it is built on a long history of collaborative working for over 40 years. The understanding and trust built up over this time has been an essential ingredient in making the unprecedented financial commitment required by both parties.

Importantly, the potential for economic growth will extend far beyond the work of our two institutions, with the new campus aiming to provide a research hub for the many small marine enteprises across the south coast and beyond. This is university-business collaboration on a massive scale and the future is very exciting.

Professor Don Nutbeam is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton.

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