Why it is important for SMEs to engage with universities which can help them grow?
We all know that SMEs are at the heart of the economic recovery. The future growth and importance of SMEs to the UK economy and how economic growth can be enhanced by engaging universities was laid open in the report by Sir Andrew Witty which reviewed universities contribution to the UK economy.

“Every SME will be faced with challenges to growth and this should be the sign to seek help.”

In the report Sir Andrew highlights the role universities can and should play in helping SMEs grow and with that bolster the local economy and job creation. Sir Andrew identifies university business schools as a single point of entry for SMEs and described examples of university business schools having a transformative effect on SMEs, through practical advice and support on running and developing the business.

There are high growth SMEs like Lein Applied Diagnostics and DataSift and many others across the UK that have engaged with universities and benefited directly by the engagement and here at Henley Business School over 100 business leaders from 70 SMEs have attended the Henley Accelerator programme. However I would surmise that the majority of the 5 million SMEs operating in the private sector in the UK have no connections with their local universities or business schools. Of course the family business and the social enterprise might not need a university to the same extent that a solar power generator manufacturer or a medical diagnostics development company with ambition to grow internationally might.

Universities can help in a variety of ways…
There are many ways in which universities can help SMEs ranging from supporting entrepreneurs launch their business and developing technologies and new products and services to providing students for fixed term projects addressing business challenges such as new product introduction and international expansion.

Of course there are executive education courses offered by business schools which help build networks as well as enhance skills and knowledge of those who attend.

“Universities have a wealth of research knowledge, talent and network connections. The latter should not be forgotten about, particularly international alumni networks.”

Traditionally universities have collaborated with corporates and recently have begun to do more with SMEs in particular those who are innovative and have high growth potential. This trend to work with SMEs has in part has been driven by local enterprise partnerships and other local business support bodies and the call by such reports as those from Andrew Witty encouraging universities to pursue a ‘third mission’ and facilitate economic growth by engaging effectively with SMEs.

Every SME will be faced with challenges to growth and this should be the sign to seek help and at least have that conversation with the university who are being urged to partner with SMEs. Define your challenge and talk with a knowledge base of the university.

SMEs say that they don’t have the time or resources to engage with a university…
This has been the reply from SMEs which has been recognised and why it is important that universities show on the one hand that there are potentially massive benefits from engaging with universities and on the other make it easy for SMEs to get engaged with their local university.

For the SME the advice is to create the time to explore what the local university and business school can offer because they can unlock potential growth and help the SME realise its growth ambition.

How relevant is university input?
This is a question that SMEs also ask. The answer is that universities have a wealth of research knowledge, talent and network connections. The latter should not be forgotten about particularly international alumni networks which are an invaluable resource for SMEs seeking to export overseas.

The important point is contact the local university and find out what it has to offer that is relevant.

At Henley Business School the Accelerator Programme addresses this question by taking the theory and distilling it into practical tools that the SME can use to drive business outcomes and improve the bottom line.

“The best way to get started is contact your local enterprise partnership and find the representative of the local university or Higher Education Institution”

Single point of entry:
Universities are now establishing partly in response to calls from among others Sir Andrew Witty and Sir Tim Wilson for a single point of entry for SMEs which makes it easy for SMEs to access the corridors of knowledge and tap into the resources that can help make the SMEs grow successfully.

How to engage with the university:
The best way to get started is contact your local enterprise partnership and find the representative of the local university or Higher Education Institution (HEI) or otherwise get in touch with the knowledge transfer office at the university who will usually be able to direct you to that part of the university which will be able to help.

At the University of Reading, which is among the top 1% of universities in the world and home to the Henley Business School that serves the larger Thames Valley region, the single point of entry for SMEs is the Knowledge Transfer Centre. Businesses can contact the Knowledge Transfer Centre to discuss their needs with an experienced team, who can support them and connect them to relevant colleagues and expertise within the Henley Business School and other Reading University departments.

Forthcoming event for SMEs:
Working with the Knowledge Transfer Centre the Henley Business School has joined with the Thames Valley Berkshire Business Growth Hub to stage the ‘Supporting SME Businesses to Grow‘ forum. Aimed at SMEs the forum features Richard Greenhalgh, Chair of the NCUB who will deliver the keynote speech and a panel of SMEs talking about how they have benefited by collaborating with the university. The forum is to be held at Henley Business School, Reading on 24 June 2014. A report on the event will appear in my blog later in the month.

Jurek Sikorski is Business Development Lead and Executive in Residence, Henley Centre for Entrepreneurship at Henley Business School, University of Reading.

Do you work within an SME? Have you attempted a partnership with academia? Comment below or tweet us @NCUBtweets.
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