A KTP experience from a university perspective

A KTP experience from a university perspective

We spoke with David Gregson who worked within a KTP partnership between Lancaster University and United Utilities Water, he discussed the nature of the partnership, challenges he faced and advice he would give to similar companies who wish to maximise participation with academia or business.

What is United Utilities and why have they partnered with Lancaster University?

Part of United Utilities Group PLC, a FTSE100 company, United Utilities Water (UU) supplies water and waste water services to 9.2 million in the North West of England. The company delivers some of the largest capital investment programmes based on a highly developed approach to project management and innovative system solutions that ensure best whole-life cost.

The KTP partnership between Lancaster University and UU was designed to give an understanding of the issues involved in the production and application of BIOSORBENT, a novel microbial method for the removal of waste from sewage, which uses less energy than existing treatments. Additionally, the removed waste may then be further treated to produce biogas (methane) to generate electricity.

"The benefits to the university are seen across teaching, research and our outreach activities."

My role was to work with UU (Dr Son Le) and the academic team (Professor Kirk Semple) throughout the proposal development stage to ensure all parties were working towards the same goals and had similar requirements. Through a series of meetings and workshops we developed a successful proposal to the Technology Strategy Board that met the needs of both parties. The commercial case was key for UU, while the academic team were keen to build on ongoing research and apply it to a 'real world' problem.

The KTP team act as a central point of contact throughout the application stages and work with the partners post-award to manage the finances and project outputs.

The project allowed UU to design, build, install and integrate the novel process to some of its existing sewage works to trial systems for a better water quality, reduced electricity consumption and more renewable energy production. The outcome was hoped to be an overall reduction in waste water treatment cost while helping to meet the company's Carbon Reduction Commitment - factors that are vitally important for their ambition to become the leading UK's Water Company.

"Keep an eye on the TSB website to check the latest partnership options. Contact local universities and enquire about their KTP team"

How did you first get involved in the KTP project?

The lead academic had an existing relationship with UU as part of the on-going relationship between Lancaster University and UU. Through their regular meetings UU and Prof Kirk Semple identified a gap in their R&D activities that mapped perfectly onto the skill set of one of Prof Semples Post-Doctoral students (Dr Shams Usmani) who was looking for an opportunity to exploit his research developed through his PhD in this area. We worked with the academic team, the company supervisors and the proposed associate to develop the proposal through the two stages - ensuring everyone's project goals would be met while managing expectations. This can be challenging given the different pressures of time and commercial impacts that affect the partners in different ways.

What challenges have you faced in this industry and how do you advise overcoming them?

Challenges

  • Securing funding to invest in projects that will give them a competitive advantage
  • Lack of strength in Unique Selling Propositioins
  • Graduate attraction – big 4, London experience etc
  • Time management

Overcome

  • Innovate
  • Don't compete, do what you do the best and focus of customer retention. Compete against the right competitors
  • Exploit the opportunities in the local area i.e. KTP other TSB funded opportunities
  • Keep market knowledge up to date, know exactly what is changing
  • Motivate staff, small medium sized companies have the advantage over large companies to have a consulted, motivated, focused workforce
  • Be part of the 'community'

How were you able to secure funding for this KTP?

This project was funded partially by a government grant from the TSB. And part funded by the EPSRC. In total 50% of this project is funded and 50% is paid for by UU.

When the project was brought to the KTP team we search for alternative or back-up sources of funding. In this case we were sure the proposed project was really only suitable for a KTP as it was essentially commercialising a piece of research carried out by the associate under his PhD.

"Our role is to manage all these expectations so everyone feels that when the project finishes it has been positive and they have seen a real benefit from the collaboration."

In the first instance we prepared an 'Expression of Interest' which outlined the project, its partners and commercial benefits to UU. We engaged with the TSB Advisor (Fiona Nightingale) at the early stages firstly to gain her invaluable experience in how to frame the proposal but also because she has to champion the project to the approvals board. The second stage of the application covers in detail the project outputs and commercial benefits and we were ultimately awarded the project around six months after the initial discussion began.

What does the University of Lancaster benefit from being involved within a Knowledge Transfer Partnership?

The benefits to the university are seen across teaching, research and our outreach activities. The research complements existing activity underway within the Lancaster Environment Centre and allows direct application of our more theoretical insights. In addition, we gain knowledge of the current and future industry requirements that informs new directions and opportunities for research and teaching.

In traditional academic terms, there are tangible possibilities of publications at international conferences and journal papers.

The wider relationship with UU that has been strengthened by the KTP brings other benefits that are harder to directly measure in the short term but include:

  • Potential work opportunities for students/associates
  • Further Publications / journals
  • Marketing / University exposure
  • Relationship / contact building that benefits academics that perhaps would like to develop links into UU

What advice would you give to those in similar companies who wish to maximise participation with academia or larger businesses?

Keep an eye on the TSB website to check the latest partnership options. Get in contact with a TSB representative and discuss what possible partnerships would be beneficial for the company, explain goals and objectives and what experience you are lacking to fulfil these objectives.

Contact local universities and enquire about their 'KTP' team, set up a meeting to find out a bit more about how the scheme works, projects they have already worked on, outcomes of these etc.

These projects work best when the company has a 'defined plan/idea' they wish to build upon and bring to market. Partnerships need a specific focus and companies need a specific reason as to why they need the expertise of academics i.e. lack of internal research/expertise in this specific area, lack of necessary equipment. With a clear focus as to why a partnership would benefit business opportunities, projects can thrive. Without clear objectives projects are difficult to drive and sustain.

What is the most valuable thing you have learned so far from working in a KTP?

Everyone has a different requirement of the project and different expectations. Our role is to manage all these expectations so everyone feels that when the project finishes it has been positive and they have seen a real benefit from the collaboration.

How has the KTP project positively enhanced or impacted your career and those around you?

KTPs are interesting projects to be involved with from a Project Management perspective and I feel it positively impacts a person's career. Not only are they managing the project and associated finances of a fairly large complex project with multiple stakeholders but they are constantly exposed to new areas, industries and technologies that you may never have considered as areas of interest.

On a daily basis you will:

  • Learn new skills/experience
  • Increase business and academic contacts
  • Create new employment opportunities for students
  • Work with different and varied groups of people, and develop a team working experience
  • Have opportunities to be a part of exciting developments and partnerships that could shape new areas of the industry

David Gregson is the Strategic Partnerships Manager in Research & Enterprise Services at Lancaster University

Are you involved in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership? How has your experience been? Join in with our KTP month and share your stories with us online, tweet us @NCUBtweets using the hashtag #KTPMonth.

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