NCUB hosted “The Value of University – University Collaboration” webinar on Thursday 22nd July (link to event here). The event focused on two key areas; collaboration in commercialisation in Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund (CCF) and global inward investment reflecting upon NUCB’s Global Collaboration Fund (GCF).

It would seem sensible to mention the elephant in the room on the day first – the Innovation Strategy[1]. Although the event was not due to review the strategy (most notably as no one would have had the chance to read through the document) there were areas which came up in discussion. And as the manager for CCF I was pleased and excited to see the programme in the Government’s paper alongside an announcement of £25million additional follow on funding. [2] This demonstrates that the programme is addressing issues that are important nationally such as the strive for 2.4% GDP spend by 2027, and it was great recognition of all the hard work to date of CCF project leads, participants and partners. This event allowed us to explore these partnerships with CCF projects and reflect upon what has worked well to date and has certainly given me ideas on where the programme might go next.

How many university partners? What is the sweet spot in commercialisation and working with business?

Andrew Wilkinson, of CCF project Northern Gritstone[3], a partnership of the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, started the discussion around a topic which has been debated many times during the rollout of CCF: what is the ideal number of higher education partners?

Andrew noted that Northern Gritstone had come about through a shared vision, to build a process to evaluate technology opportunities and develop a fair decision-making process. Due to the nature of the project being operationally complex, any more than three universities could have hindered the development of shared practices and added time constraints on approving decisions. Therefore, Andrew noted that for Gritstone a smaller number of universities was appropriate. However, this does not mean it would be the same for every type of business collaboration, it depends on the character of the commercialisation challenge and the intended achievements.

The views of CCF project leads, Dr Simon Hepworth (Medtech SuperConnector) and Dr Francesca Gliubich (London Advanced Therapies) added new perspectives to the discussion as they have markedly larger partnerships of HE providers. They felt that this worked for their commercialisation challenges because it brought in diverse approaches and opportunities. The institutions involved in these projects are contributing to a much wider knowledge pool of diverse approaches to commercialisation and building a network of expertise which is looking to continually grow and become sustainable over time.

Not forgetting, that there is room for change when it comes to partners, both increasing and deceasing over the span of the programme life. If we take the two examples above, on one hand, MedTech has kept the same partnership using additional funding to focus on developing a new mature model for MedTech acceleration through collaboration with industry, in an aim to increase the prospect of future venture establishment. On the other hand, London Advanced Therapies, have expanded their partners to include new business’, taking the learnings from the first stage, to bridge their network and expand it across the country.

It is exciting to see that by bringing together a wide range of universities in CCF, new opportunities have arisen, and collaborations have provided scale for universities of all types and sizes to try something new in commercialisation. This has resulted in ‘first times’ for many involved – as an example, CERES[4], where HE provider partners new to technology transfer have now engaged in their first ever spin out company.

So, what’s the sweet spot? As in many dimensions to commercialisation ‘One size really does not fit all’. CCF projects differ in their commercialisation challenges and approaches, and this reinforces Andrew’s point – the number of partners should fit with what the project is aiming to achieve and there is no right number.

Similarly, CCF projects have very different types and numbers of external and internal partners and participants – of investors, businesses and researchers – dependent on their aims and types of commercialisation approach. The numbers and characters of all forms of partners and participants should vary.

To the future

If I were to consider possible future funding in light of this webinar, I can see the importance of allowing plenty of time for the development of partnerships, with partners chosen precisely to fit with the commercialisation approach, challenge and aims identified for the project. This includes identifying the right universities to collaborate together, with appropriate pools of experience but also with those who want to establish to new approaches, and with excellent fit with the external investor, business and local partners. This would bring about the most compelling project collaborations who were ready and focused to handle the task at hand.

[1] The BEIS Innovation Strategy was published on the day of the event