At the University of Birmingham, connections with industry are being strengthened in many ways, with one focus on how stronger internal academic alignment around themes and areas of interest can support business collaboration. The School of Chemistry demonstrates the benefits of this approach.

Easy to engage, stronger collaboration

The School of Chemistry has brought together common areas of focus from across academic teams, supporting more collaborative working practices internally as well as fostering stronger research collaboration opportunities with business. The School has grouped research across four interest groups: Data & Machine Intelligence, Plastics, Sensing and Chemistry and Topology. External audiences more readily understand where they can work with the academic teams and how to engage with them. Academics are also able to work together across areas of discipline more easily and offer support, opening up their networks to each other more effectively.

Business and academia learning together

Dr Ruchi Gupta, recently awarded the Joseph Black Early Career Award, works with her team to develop chemical and biological sensors with applications in medical diagnostics and environmental monitoring. Through her work with industry developing sensors for water monitoring, she has experienced the positive outcomes from the diversity of thought that these collaborations provide, which often lead to transformative ideas and impact. Other key learnings focus on different ways of working, such as how ideas are approached and rationalised when academics work with business, or matching expectations and timelines for effective working relationships.

Driving innovation in the SME community

One interesting aspect of the sensing team’s work is the innovation they are supporting within the regional SME community. For many of these businesses, the access to the expertise and facilities that the University can provide is crucial to their R&D needs. Many SMEs are not fully aware of the support and access that a University can provide, and there are many time constraints for SME leadership teams to be able to source appropriate opportunities. The University of Birmingham is exploring ways to connect further into the SME communities, to ensure they are aware of the benefits, funded programmes as well as other initiatives supported by the institution, such as the ATETA programme, which helps businesses improve processes for better sustainability outcomes, and other ERDF funded programmes.

For example, through the Centre for Innovation in Advanced Measurement in Manufacturing, Rem3dy Health Ltd worked with the School of Chemistry to find a precise way for exact dosage, composition and mass in tablet manufacturing – conventional measurements couldn’t work as the dosage was delivered via a nozzle under pressure. The team from the University demonstrated successful outcomes with consistent dosages, using a quartz crystal microbalance.  The proposed solution allows for greater flexibility in conducting in-line dose changes and achieves improved accuracy during production, both important factors for the company.

The facilities at the University can also be used by companies for measurement and testing, for example the characterisation facilities have been used by companies across many different sectors, to either test the effect of Covid-19 cleaning products on materials, or to determine the composition of an unknown sample.

Taking academic innovation out

The School of Chemistry also has successful spin-outs, with academics such as Dr Rob Neely focusing on his spin-out, Tagomics. The working structures and access to analytical facilities in the School have been very supportive of the company’s development. Dr Neely has also highlighted the fact that establishing a business as an academic broadens all types of networks, not just industry, but academia, investors and other key stakeholders. Opening up a connection with one business, leads to further opportunities with others, particularly where the collaboration is with a small company that may use partnerships and collaborations as part of their growth strategy.

An internal focus can drive positive external change

Professor Tim Albrecht, who has led on the team alignment within the School suggests a checklist of ways to decide how to focus internal teams for better external engagement. For example, ensure the alignment is around external themes that are important and relevant to business. Take a look at your internal structures and ask:

  • Will a business know what you do, what your strengths are and what solutions you can provide to their issues?
  • Can a business easily contact you?
  • Do your academics understand how to work with business and why it is important and meaningful for their career to do so?

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