Knowledge exchange is so much more than its stereotyped model of science-industry specific projects between large corporates and research-intensive universities.

Its methods and impacts are varied in both scale and nature, as are the people who drive the collaboration. Ultimately, knowledge exchange is based on relationships between diverse stakeholders who are likely to have differing expectations and work under different business cultures.

NCUB’s annual State of the Relationship report is a welcome celebration of successful university-business collaborations. It is inspiring to read about the range of research breakthroughs and industry innovation happening in the UK with partners at home and overseas, funded by the public and private sectors, for economic, social and creative impact.

But how do these collaborations come about in the first place? How does an individual researcher or academic group identify a market for their research breakthrough? How does a company find just the right expertise within the thousands of academics working in the UK research base? How do partners decide what is the best way to pursue a mutual interest? And how do the projects exhibited here come to fruition with all the funding, project management and commercial considerations they require? This is where an often overlooked cohort of people working in almost all UK universities come in: the knowledge exchange professional.

Who are knowledge exchange (KE) professionals?

The role of the KE professional is to reconcile those differences and work towards the best outcome for all concerned within constraints that have to be recognised and worked through, for example: conditions required by a university’s charitable status or imposed by a particular funder.

KE professionals help researchers to take their work, as individuals or teams, to external audiences: activity known broadly as knowledge exchange (KE). There are many ways to do this, many pros and cons to the various methods, many rewards and benefits for getting it right but also a certain amount of risk attached to some KE routes. Because of this variety of options, added to the complexity of funding routes and organisational bureaucracy (a rather taboo word, but it’s true) the KE professionals has specialist skills – in contracting, licensing and IP management – to advise, guide and inform collaboration partners and academic entrepreneurs.

But the people who look to PraxisAuril for training also need people skills; in stakeholder and relationship management, and business development and our research has found that these types of skills are often more sought after by recruiters. Why? Because KE is, above all a people business. It is about meeting people, seeing links, bringing them together, suggesting ways of working. It’s about finding opportunities for research application, persuading investors to see the potential of a piece of IP, of building a community of stakeholders who want to support enterprise for the long-term. It’s about signposting, seeking expert advice and project management. And sometimes it’s about bring a project to a close, helping stakeholders to retain value from the experience and want to do more.

Knowledge exchange as a profession

PraxisAuril campaigns for the sharing of good practice in the sector and is working towards increasing the professionalisation of the KE function. We are interested in the extent to which this is encouraged at an institutional level by supporting professional development via training and ‘RTTP accreditation’ which provides recognition of global professional standards awarded by the Alliance of Technology Transfer Professionals, of which PraxisAuril is a founder-member. This is KE reflected on the international stage.

One of the striking things about the profession is the very diverse nature of job roles and responsibilities (a quick look at our jobs notice board is also a good indicator of this). Most of our members work in relatively small teams – no more than 10 people – which gives a low KE staff: academic ratio per institution. That also means that individuals in that team are less likely to be specialised – they will need a broad range of knowledge to serve a broad academic, internal, and external audience base. What is very pleasing to note is that our member surveys show KE professionals are highly motivated by their jobs and the position they have to help academics make an impact.

It’s not just about spin-outs

Knowledge exchange describes a range of activities that enable researchers to work with external partners or take research outcomes into external contexts for economic and social impact. Aspects of KE are referred to as ‘technology transfer’ and ‘research commercialisation’ – these tend to be the more transactional focused activities based around identified and protected IP. Because they are relatively easy to quantify these are the activities that tend to make headlines when numbers go up, or down.

KE can be a collaborative activity, or transactional deal. It can be one-toone, one-to-many, or many-to-many; with an SME or a corporate; in the private or public sector. It can be IP based, or non-IP based. It can be short-term, or long-term; for a fee, for free, or in return for in-kind support. It can take place locally, nationally or internationally. It can be a single mode of interaction, or several over time. The outcomes maybe defined, or it may be a more open-ended investigation.

There is likely to be some kind of agreement – a contract – governing the activity. The partners involved will need to get to know each other and build trust over time. They may need to disclose background IP and agree how to share any IP arising from the collaboration. There may be funding bodies to consider and investment to secure. It can be a combination of any of these elements.

One of our core messages is about this diversity. There is something to suit every university type and every potential partner. One of the issues that we tackle through policy and advocacy activities is the persistent focus on spin-outs as a measure of success. Spin-outs are important but represent a small amount of activity for a few, very research intensive universities. We are excited about the potential of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) to add nuance to the measurement of success in KE across the UK by using a novel cluster methodology.

The clusters demonstrate that within diversity there are also specialisms. Should every university try to do everything? Some do, of course, but that takes a large amount of resource and commitment and so also tends to be the domain of large institutions. Smaller and more specialised universities know what works for them and will build expertise in that particular KE method. But that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be encouraged to try other things, to have the knowledge to advise on a suitable KE pathway even if it’s not an ‘in-house’ expertise. Part of the point of being a PraxisAuril member is that you can ask for advice from people who’ve done it before and find help on the way to trying something new. This is part of our effort to support the exchange of good practice and raise the level of service for internal and external customers across the sector.

World-class knowledge exchange

“The UK is renowned and respected for the maturity of its KE profession. We want the UK to be proud of what it achieves through KE – not just for the outcomes but for the diversity of approach that enables thousands of academics to reach audiences locally and around the globe.”  Sean Fielding, Chair, PraxisAuril

We do this by welcoming non-UK delegates to our scheduled training courses, by delivering training overseas and by working with sister organisations in the USA – AUTM – and in Europe – ASTP-Proton.

Why should we pay more attention to knowledge exchange professionals?

UK government industrial and innovation policies emphasise the role of universities in driving economic development, particularly at a local and regional level as so-called ‘anchor institutions’. Many are playing a vital role in developing Local Industrial Strategies and taking an active role in discussions about more devolution in England.

The Industrial Strategy White Paper set out the part that universities should play in helping to raise the level of R&D in the UK. It is a big role with high expectations; it relates to a university’s mission, to its internal resources and to its external environment. With high expectations has come increased funding – notably the Connecting Capabilities Fund and Strength in Places Fund which relate directly to knowledge exchange – but also a need for universities to be much more transparent about how they are working with business and to do more. This is another key purpose of the KEF and one in which our relationship with the NCUB plays a key part.

Our network and training are not just for universities; they are open to any organisation interested in KE and that wants to engage in a practical and professional way to inform this important, but often unsung, work that is such a vital part of every success story and amply demonstrated in this report.

This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.