This case study originally appeared on page 38 of the NCUB report Growing Value: Business University Collaboration for the 21st Century. The report is part of the Growing Value project, seeking to maximise the economic impact of the UK’s research base through university-business collaboration. Read the full report.

The BP Institute for Multiphase Flow was established by BP in 1999/2000 via an endowment fund of approximately £25m which created the building and funds six research staff, support staff and ongoing maintenance. The Institute conducts open research across a wide range of topics under the theme of multiphase flow and surface chemistry. The topics range from the microscale to ocean mixing, and involves industrial relationships from oil industry to paint and food.

“The BPI has demonstrated that partnerships can be constructed that do not have overt commercial mechanisms but which can yield extraordinary results”

BPI’s key contribution to BP’s wider set of objectives is the ability it provides for the company to access basic science reasoning and ideas, and to draw on insights from these to inform the way that addresses existing and potential challenges. In turn, the Institute can learn from the company’s technical and business problems to further the boundaries and applications of its research.

The BPI has demonstrated that partnerships can be constructed that do not have overt commercial mechanisms but which can yield extraordinary results. Fundamental insights into surface science have translated into technology development and deployment, in enhanced oil recovery and in advanced automotive lubricants.

The key factors which have enabled the BPI to play the positive role which it is perceived to have done are:

  • The scientific and corporate reputation of the Institute’s founders, which have established the desirability and credibility of funding fundamental research as a way of developing insights of potential value for the company.
  • The existence of a set of strong personal relationships, which greatly moderated the perceived risk of the investment when the Institute was set up.
  • The long-term nature of the relationship on the basis of the endowment through which the Institute is financed.
  • The demonstrated ability of BPI to augment the problem-solving capacity of BP by adopting new, insightful and first-principles thinking to problems arising in the day-to-day operations of BP.
  • The development of trust at an institutional and individual level, based on repeated interactions.
  • The provision through the BPI of the opportunity for academics to pursue a tenure-based career development path within a knowledge exchange setting. This has attracted excellent candidates to fill the posts endowed at the Institute, and facilitated the establishment of a very strong platform for interactions and research collaborations with those individuals and potentially with their wider departmental homes.
  • The quality of individuals who have from time to time played the role of gatekeepers or boundary spanners linking BP to BPI.
  • The BPI Director’s leadership qualities, and the ability of Director and senior endowed post holders in BPI to engage with the company and display the capacity to understand and move with ease across the industry-university boundary.
  • The variety of formal and especially informal mechanisms of interaction between the company and the Institute. These allow connections to be made which can lead to new projects.

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