The Times Higher Education recently identified my institution, the University of Surrey, as a ‘Tech Challenger’. It was one of only two UK universities to feature on a global list of 55 institutions that have been innovative in their approach to research collaboration and funding.

Surrey’s ethos of working with industry to make a real impact is something that attracted me, a Chinese Australian, to move across the globe to lead such a fine institution. We believe in partnerships that look beyond transactional relationships to build long-term strategic and sustainable platforms. Our £75 million 5G Innovation Centre, for example, fosters open innovation by involving a range of partners to develop and deploy 5G technologies. Our Centre for the Digital Economy combines business experimentation with pioneering research to identify problems and find solutions for the modern economy. Meanwhile, our involvement with Small Satellite Technology Ltd. – a spin-off company sold by the University to Airbus in 2009 – creates student placements, PhD projects, and unique research opportunities.

Partnerships between academia and business must be founded on a clear and shared understanding of how each partner can add value to the other. Industry has much to offer to academia, including funding, insight into real-world problems and technology trends, and market intelligence. In the new age of open innovation, researchers must find and test ideas through multiple and varied channels, just as the outcomes of those ideas will travel to multiple and varied destinations. What academia can offer to industry is similarly varied. Companies value access to highly skilled talent, primarily graduates, but also expertise, training services, and industry network facilitation. Innovative companies look to universities for new solutions to existing problems, or for pipelines to deliver future innovation.

In 2016, the University of Surrey joined forces with Zoetis to form vHive, the Veterinary Health Innovation Engine, which brings together 5G telecommunication, data analytics, and veterinary and medical sciences to develop cutting-edge animal care technologies. This is an example of industry leveraging the research capacity of the university, built on long-term public funding.

However, differences in culture and organisational focus between academia and business will greatly affect partnerships. Business will prioritise profit and must respond rapidly to market forces; academia will look for sustained excellence and long-term reputation. Business will tend towards low-risk ventures; academic research can be more speculative and exploratory in nature. In my experience, negotiations about the ownership of intellectual property can sometimes derail more constructive discussions about an innovation’s best uses and impact. These different expectations must be understood and managed, with robust mechanisms to review and assess outcomes of the partnership. More often than not, a middle ground can be found that will prove fertile for fruitful collaborations.

There are some common pitfalls in communication, often due to either inadequate face-to-face contact or too many formal interactions without due consideration of social needs. Other possible pitfalls relate to misunderstanding of roles and personnel. Companies sometimes assume the role of Vice-Chancellor to be directly equivalent to a CEO. Vice-Chancellors are CEOs in legal terms, but in practice they are more like the Head academic who must lead and inspire the academic community. Vice-Chancellors are accountable to multitudes of stakeholders, but no shareholders. Obviously, the key is transparency and constant communication across formal and informal channels.

There are ways in which universities can make life easier for companies. Universities are many in number and can appear opaque in their operations to outsiders. Single points of contact are always useful, as well as easy access to information about the expertise within individual departments and centres.

Finding complementary strengths and ambitions is vitally important. In addition to the substantial technical and investment perspectives, any successful partnership or collaboration should take a holistic view of the whole spectrum of opportunities: from talent and skill transfer, to capacity and reputation building, to social impact.

At Surrey, we consider our partnership approach to represent our competitive advantage. It is successful partnerships with business and industry that will distinguish the leading institutions of the future, as they provide practice-centred education and impactful research to positively change the world.


Professor Max Lu By Professor Max Lu,
Vice-chancellor, University of Surrey
See the University of Surrey member page for Professor Lu’s full profile


An earlier version of this article was originally published by the Times Higher Education.