Radical changes in the way the commercial and the academic work together. This is inevitable in the current economic climate with pressures on both sectors and increased focus on delivery of economic growth.

Businesses are realising that universities are now much more ‘savvy’ and attuned to business needs, and they are also much more aware of the true costs of each of their activities. Universities  recognise that commercial interactions are not just sources of income. Both parties are acknowledging that the benefits are much greater and much wider than financial and that real partnerships will be based on sharing of intellectual, technical and infrastructure resource.

Driving innovation at the University of Manchester

At the University of Manchester, we are working hard to embed an understanding of the wider mutual benefit which must include a better understanding of each partner’s goals and needs and recognition of the value of sharing expertise, facilities and materials.

Some examples where this has been effective include the Manchester Collaborative Centre from Inflammation Research – a three way partnership between the University, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, where each contributes equal funding in an open innovation model. This combines our biomedical research with the drug discovery, development and commercialisation expertise within the pharmaceutical industry to ensure the faster delivery of effective medicines to patients.

The BP International Centre for Advanced Materials supports fundamental science and the engineering application of advanced materials for use in the energy sector. It attracted funding to the University of over £65 million and was built on an existing long term partnership in research and postgraduate education. The University of Manchester is the ‘hub’ which works with the Universities of Cambridge and Illinois and Imperial College, London.

A platform for entrepreneurship

We have also invested heavily in funding for new University start-up companies and in training of students in entrepreneurship. PhD students in nanoscience, including graphene, have to take a course in enterprise and present their business plans as well as their research. The best can win a major prize for a start up company. Three have emerged to date.

I very often cite the former R&D lead of a major UK company who said ‘Don’t turn great British universities into second rate companies’. I could not agree more. Universities must be places where unconstrained new thinking occurs, where ‘wild’ ideas can be tested and where there must always be space, time and funding to push back conventional barriers.

But if this can be married with openness to working with industry and a range of other external organisations, it is likely to be of huge societal and economic benefit.