Collaborative Partners: Toshiba Medical Visualization Systems Europe Ltd and a selection of Scottish universities
Collaboration type: Staff exchange and student internships
Nation: Scotland
Funding: Minimal – travel and subsistence
Summary: A staff exchange collaboration based in Scotland that originated from a spin out company from the University of Edinburgh.  Each staff exchange placement last 12 weeks, and it has helped build strong connections between Scottish universities and TMVS.

“The number of people that have taken part in the staff exchange programme with the University of Edinburgh is small but the benefits are many,” says Ken Sutherland, R&D Director for Toshiba Medical Visualization Systems Europe Ltd (TMVS) based in Edinburgh.

So far, four people from TMVS and the university have taken part in the staff exchange programme. Nonetheless, the scheme has created opportunities to build mutually beneficial relationships that have extended beyond the secondment programme.

“The number of people that have taken part in the staff exchange programme with the University of Edinburgh is small but the benefits are many” Ken Sutherland

Four years ago TMVS approached Interface – the knowledge connection for business, a service that helps businesses access specialist expertise, knowledge and facilities in Scotland’s universities.  Interface connected TMVS with the SINAPSE, the Scottish imaging network which brings together six of Scotland’s universities at the forefront of research in the field of brain imaging.

TMVS had originated from a University of Edinburgh spin out company, and though it remained an academically-orientated business, employing a number of PhDs, the university connection had been lost. Interface worked with SINAPSE and TMVS to develop a successful staff exchange programme.

“Our employees are computer software engineers and our customers are medical researchers and clinicians. We create highly specialised products so it is essential for our engineers to understand the needs of the users.  The staff exchange programme offers the opportunity for our engineers to work closely with part of our customer base. Moreover, it brings together the people with the software know-how and the people with the medical challenges to experiment with the possibilities of the technology. It is at this intersection that real innovation happens,” explains Ken.

There are few formal structures around the staff exchange programme. The placements are driven by the research agendas of TMVS and the universities. Each placement is approximately 12 weeks  and the costs are minimal, as each employer meets any additional cost incurred by their staff member.

Building long term relationship with academic partners, Ken has learned that it is just as important for academics to articulate internally the benefits of working with business.  Some of those benefits are well understood, such as the opportunity for university- based staff to gain first-hand experience of commercial R&D.  In addition, Ken has supported academic colleagues to review grant applications with a commercial element and has supplied letters of support.

“I would urge any business considering partnering with a university to persevere, especially during the initial phase.” Ken Sutherland

As a result of the staff exchange programme TMVS has increased its internship scheme for students and recent graduates. It offers up to 10 places per year and employs two or three on a permanent  basis.   The interns give the company access to a regular pool of talent and the chance to pursue experimental or risky projects that would otherwise not happen due to the opportunity costs of releasing a full-time member of staff to do it.

However, achieving a mutually beneficial collaborative partnership with a university has been subject to trial and error.  Some relationships have not got off the ground because bureaucracy has got in the way, or, there have been instances where the university has just taken too long to respond after the initial contact.

“If a department takes weeks to simply sign a confidentiality agreement it’s not a good sign and we have walked way,” says Ken, “But, four years down the line, I would urge any business considering partnering with a university to persevere, especially during the initial phase.

“Even when you are working with a great university that understands your needs there will be points when it gets frustrating. Pause and remember that you are not dealing with another business and that university’s internal pressures and constraints are different. A university partnership is worth pursuing as the relationships we have now are absolutely invaluable to the future of our business.”

For further information:
Dr Ken Sutherland,
R&D Director and General Manager, TMVS
Tel: 0131 472 4796

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