Universities and SMEs - finding common ground

Universities and SMEs - finding common ground

The challenges of bringing SMEs and Universities together are many and varied, but if you put in the time and effort to understand what the company needs, what academics can offer and build the right relationship, it is well worth the effort.

We know that Small to Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) are extremely important to our economy. At the start of 2013 there were an estimated 4.9 million UK private sector SMEs, employing around 14.4 million people. SMEs account for 99.9% of all private sector businesses in the UK and their estimated annual turnover is £1,600 billion. We also know that Universities and Businesses working together is a ‘good thing’ as it can lead to new products and services, improvements in processes and new jobs. Traditionally Universities and large businesses have worked well together so the focus from funders has been on increasing successful interactions with SMEs.

"It is only once you really understand the company and have built a relationship with them that you can start looking for the right academic to help them reach their goals."

The Encompass project is an SME-focused initiative, we have partnered with the universities of Aberdeen, Stirling and Strathclyde to work with Scottish SMEs to help increase their levels of innovation. To date we have helped over 350 companies; collaborated on more than 55 research and technology development projects; completed 14 new licensing deals with SMEs; and helped 13 new businesses set-up.

What have we learnt? A key lesson has been the limitations of ‘one-size-fits-all' initiatives. All businesses are not alike and should not be treated as such; they have their own priorities and face their own unique challenges. Universities may be able to help address some of those challenges but that means getting to know the company, understanding where they are, where they want to go and the obstacles that they face in getting there. You have to do the ground work and this takes time. It is only once you really understand the company and have built a relationship with them that you can start looking for the right academic to help them reach their goals.

It shouldn’t be a one-sided relationship either; the academic should get something worthwhile out of the engagement too. From my experience, and many years of working at the SMEs/academic interface, it is clear that an academic will only become involved in a project if they have a genuine interest in the area being investigated and feel they have the appropriate level of expertise to help find the right solution. If there isn’t a common research interest then it is just contract research and less likely to appeal.

One thing that we do have to be wary of is managing expectations. Academic engagement is about solving problems and technical challenges and not building prototypes. A University may be able to test the feasibility and validity of an idea but we cannot accredit products, give warranties or accept liability if things don’t work as well as anticipated. We have to also be careful of not being viewed as a cheap alternative to a commercial solution and we can’t be seen to be displacing other SMEs in the marketplace, there’s a lot to think about!

"Managing expectations on both sides is key to building a lasting relationship and building trust takes time."

Managing expectations on both sides is key to building a lasting relationship and building trust takes time. The pace in academia is not generally aligned to that faced in industry – there are competing priorities. Most academics who are involved in collaborative opportunities with industry are usually also managing a teaching and research workload. SMEs face their own time pressures, keeping their business afloat while trying to get new products and services to market can be a real challenge and often has to happen within a short timeframe. Workflows and cash flow can also be a major issue and both sides need to be clear on what is required and whether it is possible within the confines of time and funding available.

I have heard many stories of SMEs thinking that Universities will try to exploit or even steal their IP. This can, understandably, be an area of major concern for SMEs and most want to retain full ownership of all IP in order to attract future funding. There will be some cases where Universities are bringing expertise without which the company would be unable to move forward, in those instances an IP agreement will have to be reached but this takes place before any work starts so everyone knows where they stand. Over the last few years the university sector has tried to address IP concerns by developing common approaches to licensing agreements, making them shorter and easier to work with. In 2010 the University of Glasgow launched Easy Access IP. By offering portfolios of free intellectual property we hoped to provide a fast-track route for the transfer of knowledge and expertise from our universities to industry. Easy Access IP has now been adopted by over 20 institutions worldwide and every Scottish University, as part of their funding agreement, has implemented some form of Easy Access IP.

Building relationships between academic communities and SMEs can be challenging but we all have good examples of relationships that have worked well and companies who continue to work with academic groups many years after that first interaction. We need to make sure that those examples are shared and celebrated.

Marion Anderson is Encompass Project Manager at the University of Glasgow.

Other posts you may interest you:

Why the Royal Society of Chemistry is funding undergrad placements in SMEs

Universities and business: each are stronger when they work together

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