Article by BP Group Head of Technology, David Eyton

Professor Dame Ann Dowling produced her review of business university collaboration at the House of Commons on 2nd July. I had the pleasure of joining her Steering Group, albeit with some trepidation given the number of similar such reviews which had occurred recently. 

That includes the one I co-chaired in 2012 with Shirley Pierce, then Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough University, for the Council for Industry & Higher Education (now the National Centre for Universities & Business).  I need not have worried – this most recent review is comprehensive and was very ably supported by the staff at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Timing is also everything – we are likely to find out more about the government’s response this autumn, although I am encouraged by the fact that the report was launched by the new Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, who also wrote the positive foreword in the report, just ahead of the Chancellor’s budget on 8th July.
For those yet to read the report, it is clear that many companies benefit from close and collaborative relationships with UK universities, but engagement is patchy. The report identifies some of the reasons for this and makes corresponding recommendations:

•    Public support for the innovation system is too complex
•    People are central to successful collaborations
•    Effective brokerage is crucial, particularly for SMEs, and continued support is needed for activities that help seed collaborations
•    Pump-prime funding would stimulate the development of high quality research collaborations with critical mass and sustainability
•    Technology transfer offices need to prioritise knowledge exchange over short-term income generation, and further work is required to improve approaches to contracts and IP agreements
•    Government strategy on innovation needs to be better coordinated and have greater visibility.
As I participated in the review, I was struck by a few things. First, it may be difficult for the government to provide additional funding for innovation, given the level of challenge in the current spending review – so we need to make the most of what we have got. Second, the UK’s innovation ecosystem really is complex – innovation is by its nature messy, but the funding system is more complex than it needs to be. Third, various enabling mechanisms were consistently commended – CASE, IUK, HEIF, REF Impact, KTN, Patent Box – while others came in for some criticism – IP/TTOs, VAT, State Aid. Fourth, the NCUB is already working on a brokerage service, as recommended by the 2012 CIHE review I co-chaired, but NCUB won’t have a product until 2017 and it is always going to be difficult to translate business challenges into appropriate academic research.

So the bottom line is that business-university collaboration is a contact sport. Long term, trusted relationships are critical to adding business value and that is certainly our experience in BP.