Experiences from N8 Industry Innovation Forum

Experiences from N8 Industry Innovation Forum
N8 Focus report

N8 Focus report

Report by N8 Research Partnership


The N8 Industry Innovation Forum leads the industry-facing activities of the N8 Research Partnership - a collaboration of the eight most research-intensive universities in the North of England: Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York. Working with industry, N8 aims to maximise the impact of this research base by identifying and coordinating powerful research collaborations.

What’s the Innovation Forum about?

N8IIF was born from widespread discussion in 2011-12 with industry partners highlighting the power of bringing eight universities together to support new innovations with commercial potential. Companies identified the greatest opportunities were in the ability to “interact, engage and translate new technologies and new science into their sectors” through new connections with both academic and industry experts, across disciplines and supply chains. This is our ‘best with the best’ model - bringing key academic and industry thinkers together to address major challenges in a chosen area.

N8IIF delivers events based around specific industrially relevant opportunity areas, for instance Advanced Materials (February 2012), Healthy Ageing (November 2012), Industrial Biotechnology (October 2013) and Food Security and Technology (October 2014). We then aim to identify and set up new, multi-partner research projects – clustering industry and academic interest around challenge areas and launch new collaborative research programmes. The concept is simple: getting the right people in the right environment taking about the right things, leading to new collaborative ideas. To do so successfully across eight universities, SMEs, and larger businesses, involving a variety of internal and external stakeholders whilst addressing topics of real challenge has been demanding. Consideration of people and relationships, good planning, diplomacy and hard work helped deliver positive outcomes from our forums to date.

Though based around the N8 universities, the forum reach is broad, addressing areas of national importance, working with regional, national and international companies, organisations and bringing in other leading centres of academic excellence where appropriate. Innovate UK and the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) are critical partners and sponsors of this open innovation network, with a key focus on supporting innovation, R&D and growth.

How does N8IIF work?

The starting point is to listen and identify key industry innovation needs, match these with areas where the N8 partners can make a difference, and then identify the right academic experts to work on those challenges. All along this path we ‘sense check’ the emerging topics and challenges with industry, the Research Councils and Innovate UK. This ensures our events really focus on industry need, contribute to the national agenda, with the support of the major funding organisations.

Through facilitated discussions, academic and industry experts discuss ideas, refine and reshape key questions and develop ideas for innovation and R&D. This leads to the individual research projects in direct response to industry need.

N8IIF resources support these projects through their early development to overcome any barriers in working across multiple academic and industry partners, leading to the creation of robust project proposals. These would typically then be submitted into relevant national funding calls. This support comprises project management time and individual project leaders also have the opportunity to bid for modest project development funding. We understand pulling together a multi university, multi industry project – particularly in new research areas with new partnerships – can present barriers to progress but we certainly don’t want to lose the momentum created through the Forum workshop.
What has been achieved, what have we learnt?

The numbers are impressive – engagement with over 300 companies, 380 academics and 71 projects ideas identified ‘on the day’. Many created enduring collaborative partnerships and successfully attracted funding – both public and private with some £9.95 million in project income of which £3 million is direct investment to date. Great examples from earlier Forum include the development of the Open Innovation Hub For Antimicrobial Surfaces.

This Liverpool-based research and innovation hub was established directly out of an N8 Forum. It is a multi-disciplinary initiative that has spun out six successfully funded projects bringing together academia, industry, SMEs and NHS to address a serious health issue with commercially viable products. We continue to work with a number of potentially high value, high impact projects that are ‘in process’ from Industrial Biotechnology and Food Security events which will radically rewrite these numbers. Alongside these projects many new bilateral relationships and new research partnerships were created.

Projects covered the breadth of all Forum topics and included collaborative research ideas involving a very wide range of both natural and social science disciplines. This meeting at the boundaries of academic interest with a highly informed industry perspective allows new ways of thinking about problems. We are not trying to re-hash past discussions but create new dialogues.

Beyond these projects new research communities came together. New business ideas were explored with new academic leaders identified. Most importantly for N8, we successfully brought sometimes very disparate academics groups together to work with industry in key areas. These successes have helped to build the strength, trust and depth of understanding across the N8 Partnership at all levels and helped drive the development of more ambitious strategic goals – for instance the establishment of a major strategic research collaboration across all eight universities that has resulted in a £16 million, five-year Agri-Food Resilience Programme, incorporating an £8m HEFCE Catalyst award, and the ongoing interest in establishing an N8 led national Centre for Agricultural Innovation.

Our N8 Innovation Forum model has been adopted as best practice for engagement between users and producers of academic research within other N8 activities, such as recent projects in Social Sciences Coproduction and in the HEFCE Catalyst funded N8 Policing Partnership.

Lessons learnt

It takes time. Time to create an event, time for projects to evolve.

The more time put into the preparatory work and sense checking the workshop challenges the better the event. This includes all necessary engagement with internal and external stakeholders. Support from the research and business networks within Innovate UK, KTNs and the various research councils was critical in identifying key industry players. Getting the right mix and number of participants is probably the most important aspect for a successful event. With experience, the numbers were deliberately reduced to allow higher level discussions in a managed setting.

Time for projects – it can take months or even years for resulting projects to come to fruition. This was particularly evident as we deliberately moved from identifying many, smaller projects to fewer, higher impact opportunities – especially when novel and multi-disciplinary research ideas are being explored. Sometimes they need to find the right ‘moment’ to take to the funding arena.

Project support – the N8IIF provision of early stage project support and a stage-gate process ensured there was a structure allowing ideas to develop until the collaborations are self-supporting. Without pre-conceived ideas of what collaborations should be, academic and industry partners are free to generate ideas for novel approaches based on their complementary skills and needs.

Where next?

The Innovation Forum to date I believe is recognised for the contributions made to getting real traction between industry and academia. New topic areas will arise, others will be re-visited. We need to move on and build on this success. One clear opportunity is to develop and enhance the ‘communities of interest’ emerging around specific challenges and themes. This will sustain and grow a pipeline of projects into the future to provide a long term tangible industry – academia partnership.

The endeavour can be high risk with no guaranteed outcomes. However, a thorough understanding of the interest and needs of participants allows us to create the right chemistry at the events. Post event comments from industry, RCUK and academics say we have indeed created a unique and worthwhile Forum.

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