How has the situation evolved over the past ten years?

Overall they work well, as recognised in the Wilson Review. It is acknowledged by many businesses that the UK is one of the best and easiest countries in which to build and transact relationships with universities, which are often more flexible than their overseas counterparts.

Yet the myth still persists that the UK research base is not good at working with business, and it is time that this is dispelled.

The companies citing satisfaction with the system tend to be global players, making significant investments in building relationships with universities. It is more challenging for small and medium sized companies, who often have unrealistic expectations when entering into such relationships, typically due to a lack of understanding around the multiple missions and constraints placed on the higher education sector.

For example many companies seek ownership of all IP, are unwilling to pay full economic costs or reasonable overheads and then seek warranties and indemnities for speculative research.

Supporting innovation through collaboration

In recent years the Technology Strategy Board has developed a major influence by funding near market research in areas of strategic importance. However any such initiatives, from the availability of Innovation Vouchers for SMEs to buy advice from researchers through to the establishment of the national technology intensive Catapult Centres, depend on demand pull.

It is clear that where the industry demand exists then universities are gearing themselves up to support innovation through effective collaboration.

For example, Glasgow University is currently leading the formation of two Scottish Innovation Centres [pictured] in Stratified Medicine and Sensors & Imaging Systems which are jointly developed (indeed co-led) with responsive industry partners, many of them SMEs who have invested time in understanding the perspective of the universities they work with.

However, initiatives such as these only represent a small fraction of the UK’s industry base. UK business-university interactions are already good. They now have to move from good to great. To some extent it might require new processes and sharing good practice. But much will depend on cultural change. Those companies and universities that will invest time and money into the innovation system will reap the rewards.