Industry-academia partnerships are more important than ever if the UK is to remain competitive in the international marketplace. But how does consultancy figure in these interactions and why does it so often go under the radar?

“Imperial is in the process of dispelling a common myth that consultancy is merely a ‘distraction’ from research.”

The recent £5million collaboration between Imperial College London and Dyson was born out of consultancy work carried out through Imperial Consultants (ICON), Imperial College London’s wholly owned consultancy company.

Led by Professor Andrew Davison from Imperial’s Department of Computing, the Dyson Robotics Laboratory will develop vision systems that enable robots to successfully navigate the real world. This is something that could potentially revolutionise our everyday lives. The idea of robots helping to complete everyday domestic tasks around the home could be a reality in the not-too-distant future [1].

“Industry-academia partnerships are more important than ever if the UK is to remain competitive in the international marketplace.”

Aside from the ground-breaking technology that this initiative aims to produce, the partnership is a prime example of how building foundations through consultancy projects, both in terms of technical work and relationships, can lead to future collaborative research. It also supports the notion that industry-academia relationships are shifting towards complex collaborations aiming to create solutions, rather than simple transactions of funding for research.

However, consultancy by researchers – the use of their existing knowledge and expertise to help external organisations to solve problems – is still yet to be celebrated on equal standing with the prestige of conducting the research that makes it possible.

This is despite consultancy being a major mechanism of research translation and the many examples of its impact in history. For example, did you know that Barr and Stroud, who designed the range-finders on British warships in the 1890s, were researchers at Yorkshire College acting as consultants for the Admiralty?

A recent clinical trial published in the Lancet by Imperial’s Professor Andrew Rice, his Imperial colleagues and Spinifex Pharmaceuticals is another example of consultancy leading to research. The paper details a new drug that is effective against chronic pain in patients who have had shingles [2]. The trial was made possible partly through contributions to pre-clinical work that Professor Rice made as a consultant through ICON, sitting on Spinifex’s Scientific Advisory Board. This work was integrated with that of Professor Maree Smith from the University of Queensland, Australia, and Professor Praveen Anand from Imperial’s Department of Medicine, as part of a larger collaboration.

And the union between consultancy and research doesn’t end in the preparatory phase of a project. The process comes full circle when the knowledge and expertise gained through a research programme is used in future consultancy projects, providing funds for students or equipment for further work.

So, it could be said that Imperial is in the process of dispelling a common myth that consultancy is merely a ‘distraction’ from research. Awareness of consultancy is growing among its researchers and a consultancy component has been included in the recent long-term agreements with global corporates Shell and Petronas, should the need arise.

The fact that ICON supports researchers through the consultancy process as a separate entity to the Technology Transfer (Imperial Innovations) and Corporate Partnerships offices is unusual. It demonstrates the importance of consultancy activities in helping Imperial achieve its goals and enables ICON to be 100% focussed on providing a service that creates value for the College and its researchers.

However, it is not surprising that consultancy work and its value in research goes under the radar. As ICON’s Paul Cray mentions in his article featured on[3], much of the consultancy carried out by the UK’s academic community goes unrecorded and though suspected to be great, the true extent of its social and economic impact is unknown. We are also often constrained by confidentiality agreements that prevent us from publicising consultancy work – a shame, but a reality of working with competitive organisations on strategic tasks, or those with strict public personas to uphold.

One thing is certain though, invisible or not, consultancy is becoming increasingly important in research collaborations. Making it easy for industry to access existing knowledge and expertise alongside research can only increase competitiveness in attracting the best partners.

With that in mind, should researchers start thinking more about how they can leverage their existing knowledge in order to create the new?

Please click here for more information on Imperial Consultants.

ICON is Imperial College London’s consultancy company, providing practical and innovative solutions for external organisations by facilitating access to the expertise, facilities and equipment based at the College.

Jane Cryer joined Imperial Consultants (ICON) as Marketing and Communications Officer in July 2012. She has previously worked in other university-based roles, coordinating various aspects of public health research. Jane holds a BSc in Biology with a year in Europe from the University of York.

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[1] BBC News, ‘Dyson invests £5m in robotic vision lab with Imperial’

Imperial College London, ‘Dyson and Imperial to develop next generation robots at new centre’

[2] Andrew S.C. Rice et al. ‘EMA401, an orally administered highly selective angiotensin II type 2 receptor antagonist, as a novel treatment for postherpetic neuralgia: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 2 clinical trial’

The Lancet 05 February 2014(Article in Press DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62337-5)

Imperial College London ‘New drug treatment reduces chronic pain following shingles’

[3] Paul M. Cray ‘Consultancy is an invisible powerhouse’