Dr Orla Kelly, Design Engineer at Photek, former KTP Associate with Photek and the University of Bristol gives a personal account of her once misconceptions about industry collaboration and how her experience throughout a Knowledge Transfer Partnership opened the doors for opportunity and put her in a great position to continue working in the UK industry at a competitive level.
“When I was a student I thought that having your research funded by industry was the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil…my opinion has changed as I have progressed through my research career.”
When I was a student I thought that having your research funded by industry was the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil. Along with other research colleagues, I would quietly mock industry collaborations, thinking we were somehow superior with our blue-sky thinking. Of course, that was a naïve attitude, and my opinion has changed as I have progressed through my research career. Collaboration can be a beautiful thing.
Companies, like Photek who I currently work for, employ a large number of very knowledgeable and competent researchers, scientists and engineers. Yes, their activities need to ‘align with the organisational objectives’ and ultimately make the company money. But these talented people can offer useful support to university-based researchers, providing practical insight into research problems and offering solutions from outside of the typical research laboratory toolbox.
“As a result of this KTP, Photek are the only company worldwide who are offering this innovative spectrometer technology to the market.”
In turn, the state-of-the-art research that goes on in UK universities can provide really special opportunities for small businesses throughout the UK, not only locally but in the competitive markets worldwide.
At least, that has been my experience throughout my Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) project, which continues now in my work as a Design Engineer. My employers, Photek, have been serving very particular markets with specialised products for over twenty years. However, with potential threats from rival technologies, Photek needed to stay ahead of their competitors by expanding their revenue streams, looking at new and innovative product lines. One way to do that successfully and with support is through a KTP. Photek have participated in four KTPs with different academic partners in the past, and in all four cases the KTP Associate has been employed on a full time contract with the company at the end of their project, and the collaborative ties between the company and the university partners have remained strong.
In my two year partnership, I worked with the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol to design a state-of-the-art spectrometer for laser physics and physical chemistry laboratories. At Photek, I manufactured the prototype spectrometers, and then completed the testing at the University. The spectrometer performed better than first anticipated, providing a higher velocity resolution than the last generation instrument.
It was up to me to capitalise on our successes to promote Photek and their products to the international research market. I had to build a strong network of connections with other researchers in Bristol, across Europe and further afield. With funding from the KTP programme, I was able to present work at numerous conferences, and I represented my company in two European networks and at a UK Trade Mission with UKTI.
To the best of our knowledge, as a result of this KTP, Photek are the only company worldwide who are offering this innovative spectrometer technology to the market. This puts us in a very competitive position and enhances our reputation within the scientific community. We have already seen a wider positive impact via more queries and orders for other Photek products.
It would be a huge gamble for an SME like Photek to plough valuable resources into investigating and developing a spectrometer like this without the kind of support available through the KTP programme. I suggest the three most important factors in a successful KTP programme are:
- The company should have a well-defined need, and the academic partner should be able to offer a real solution, with the help of a talented Associate.
- Communication! Regular meetings, teleconferences and e-mails between all parties make sure everyone is on the same page, working towards a common goal.
- The Associate should be brave and always consider how they can make the most of any opportunity for the benefit of the company, the university and, most importantly, their future career.
My successes in the project were recognised in last year’s KTP Awards, where I was presented with one of the Business Leader of Tomorrow Awards. I was also shortlisted for the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award 2013.
With the encouragement of my employers and my advisor in the KTP programme, I am currently completing my Level 5 Diploma from the Chartered Management Institute and I’m pursuing Chartered status with the Institute of Physics. The KTP programme has offered me so many more opportunities than I could have imagined and provided me with the guidance and support to not only to complete the task in hand, but also give me a competitive edge, putting me in a great position to continue working in UK industry at a very high level.
Dr Orla Kelly is a Design Engineer at Photek, former KTP Associate with Photek and the University of Bristol.
This post is part of KTP Month.
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.
KTP Summary Reports:
- Knowledge Transfer Partnerships: A Best Practice Approach to Open Innovation
An introduction to the KTP model, highlighting how the various players can contribute to success
- Best Practice Strategies for Successful Innovation through University-Business Collaboration
Highlighting the benefits of KTPs for business
- Successful Engagement in Open Innovation: An Insight into Knowledge Transfer Partnerships for Academics
Showing academics how you can use KTPs can build relationships with business