Two weeks ago, NCUB launched its R&D Taskforce report, calling for the UK to act as a global competitor in a highly competitive R&D and innovation market.

With the Government’s commitment to raising R&D investment to 2.4%, and a promised increase in public funding of £22billion per year by 2024/5, the Taskforce focused on how we can leverage the extra £17.5 billion from businesses to meet this target.

The Government’s R&D Roadmap encourages businesses and universities to focus on more research, development and innovation at a time when some may be forced to scale back their activities due to the uncertainty of the current operating environment. Evidence from the last recession suggests that UK businesses invested less in R&D and partnerships and the number of interactions between universities and businesses following the 2007 recession and the EU referendum declined.

University- business partnerships form an important, albeit complex component of the R&D ecosystem and realising the full potential that universities can play in driving the UK’s economic recovery needs to form part of a competitive offer that will position the UK as strong contender for a share of the global R&D market. Around the world, 1,000 multinationals spent $781.8 billion on R&D in 2017[1] and just a 1% increase in the UK’s share would increase R&D investment in the UK by £8bn.

With technology changing rapidly and many nations offering substantial incentives to attract more multinationals to come and invest, the global R&D market is more competitive than ever and understanding our customers’ needs and wants will be just as important as the offer itself.

That means developing a complete understanding of the factors that influence firms’ decision making about where to invest in R&D and how and why businesses form partnerships with universities to serve their R&D needs.

To develop this understanding, NCUB commissioned the Centre for Business Research (CBR) based at the University of Cambridge, to launch a survey to gather evidence and insights into what factors motivate businesses to work with universities, what are the barriers and how are these partnerships formed.

The importance of developing an evidence base

Research has shown that the decision of a company to engage with the uncertainty and possibility of research and innovation is complex and not fully understood[2].  From a marketing point of view, it goes without saying that understanding our ‘customer’ needs requires a sophisticated market analysis. Specifically, the UK needs to understand fully who are our customers? Why do they come to the UK? What stops them from investing and who makes these decisions?

There is greater urgency than ever for the UK Government to effectively compete in a globally competitive R&D market. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Covid-19 pandemic, energy transition and rapidly transforming global markets are likely to have a long-term impact on the needs of society and customer demand. The NCUB Taskforce report called on the Government to position the UK to capitalise on the opportunities that this generates, as well as encourage its businesses to innovate to remain competitive in a transformed global market.

The UK needs to do something different and move at speed to compete with the many offers that are being made to companies.

The CBR/NCUB survey builds on the previous set of findings from 2009 in the UKIRC report: Connecting with the Ivory Tower: Business Perspectives on Knowledge Exchange in the UK which sought to understand more about the motivations behind why businesses decide to work with universities.

Ten years on, it is important we understand whether the themes from last time still hold true, i.e. whether the incentives and drivers that motivated businesses to work with our universities are still the same.  From relationships with people, easy-to-navigate IP discussions, a simple to understand regulatory environment, the availability of highly skilled talent or the readiness of world-class facilities, these are all important factors that will help policy makers and Government leaders develop the levers and incentives that will make up a competitive offer.

As the UK establishes priorities, delivers synergies and scales up its R&D and innovation system, it will create new opportunities to compete in the global market. And these opportunities will undoubtedly enhance some of the conditions that encourage multinationals to come to the UK. But simply having the right framework conditions is not enough. We need a data-driven offer based on evidence gathered through customers themselves. Simply put, we need to understand our user needs and design and implement an effective offer in response.