In a competitive but unstable economic environment, recently shaken by the Covid-19 outbreak, there is an even greater need for a thriving and supported culture of entrepreneurship, for scientific and technological developments, and for world-leading research that challenges the status quo and improves lives.

To achieve an innovation-led economy, nurtured by a culture of collaboration, we must understand the challenges that persist for universities and businesses, as well as solutions that transform the way they engage

Understanding the challenges: Insights from industry and academia

The opportunity is tremendous. Our recently published Changing State of Business-University Interactions in the UK report  shows how important a wide range of interactions with universities are to businesses, but also suggests there is scope for more businesses to engage with universities as a source of knowledge for innovation.[1] Many universities are already evaluating what more they can do to engage with businesses, particularly through initiatives like the Knowledge Exchange Concordat.

But these are challenging times for businesses and universities alike. Last year, NCUB’s Collaboration Progress Monitor showed that between 2018/19 and 2019/20, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of interactions between universities and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) fell by 39%.

We need to understand why so that solutions can be co-created.

The Interactions Survey offers important insights into the barriers and constrains to collaboration. The two most prevalent barriers identified by the 4,000 business respondents to the interactions survey were: (1) lack of resources by the company to interact with a university, and (2) difficulty in identifying a partner (with 52% and 46% of businesses reporting these as an important factor constraining interaction).

To address these barriers, there is a need to understand where resource constraints within businesses are most acute to help policymakers to design more effective interventions. There is also a need to help universities to communicate their offer more effectively and to help businesses navigate the opportunities of collaboration.

How can konfer help overcome some of the barriers to collaboration?

NCUB is already thinking about ways that we can help to address some of the barriers identified by the survey. We view our online university-business matchmaking tool, konfer, as making an important and growing contribution. Konfer was developed by NCUB and Research England, in partnership with UKRI, to offer an efficient way to navigate resources, technology, and innovation capabilities that exist in the UK innovation eco-system. Through konfer, industry and academic teams can connect with collaborators beyond their usual reach and explore opportunities for engagement. This allows businesses and universities across the UK and internationally to proactively make connections and start conversations that could lead to research and commercialisation opportunities.

Konfer collates information from multiple sources into one digital gateway. The ability to filter large datasets including experts, research publications, patents, and equipment means businesses with limited resources can find information and make connections quickly and easily. Konfer also provides universities with a means to rapidly gather intelligence on innovation-ready businesses based on factors such as location, size, and R&D capabilities.

Developing commercial partnerships

Recently, Teesside University used konfer to find commercial partners to demonstrate their micro-bubble aeration technology. Konfer harnesses AI-powered, smart-matching technology to connect Teesside with relevant businesses, making it easier and quicker to develop commercial partnerships and maximising the impact of UK research capabilities. This unlocked a collaboration between Teesside University and technology developer Nova Q, a company dedicated to developing sustainable technologies within agriculture, aquaculture, disinfection, renewables, and wastewater.

Consortia building

We know that encouraging university-university collaboration can also help to unlock new commercial and collaborative opportunities. Identifying more opportunities for universities to work together on an offer to business was a key recommendation in our 2020 R&D Taskforce report, and konfer can help with this too.

For example, Solent University is using konfer to help build a network of interdisciplinary researchers to enhance sustainability studies and apply for funding. Areas of interest include diverse fields from environmental science and economics to computer science and engineering design. Konfer shared their call for collaboration with over 150 UK universities. Through a connection made via konfer, Solent University is now applying jointly with Teesside University to the Leverhulme Trust for a £500k research grant in relation to marine supply chain management of hydrogen fuel.

Understanding what industry and academia needs is key to continued innovation and the UK’s economic growth. Konfer exist for precisely this reason. It provides universities and businesses with a tool to enhance engagement activity and build partnerships designed to drive innovation.