Academic collaboration with industry is becoming increasingly important, with the evolution of REF and the significance attached to impact. Research in conjunction with business also creates an environment where your work can instigate positive change, a strong motivational tool.

For many academics, working with business is the norm, but for others, it is something met with some degree of trepidation. Two academics from the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham discuss how they engage with business, the challenges and the benefits, and what learnings they have for others, either as an early career researcher or after a number of years in a professorial role.

Dr Ruchi Gupta is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and focuses her research on optical sensors. The potential uses for her research, currently in the fundamental stage, are broad and varied. The platform technology she is developing could be used in a variety of sectors. In healthcare, it may monitor the healing of chronic wounds, or anti-microbial resistance, where the sensors can detect the difference between viral and bacterial infections. It could be used in water monitoring; to look at the pH levels in swimming pools. There is even the possibility of using the sensor work for food security, where markers indicating different pathogens attacking crops can be measured.

Ruchi, as an early career researcher, has found it easier to engage with mid-size and smaller companies. She feels that the information exchange is more straightforward with smaller businesses; where she can access and engage with the senior executives more effectively. However, in most institutions today, you will find Business Engagement teams within professional services. These teams bridge the gap and connect academics across all sectors and sizes. Early career researchers can connect with these professionals to support their industry collaboration efforts.

At the University of Birmingham, we use “discovery days” which bring a variety of senior leaders from business to our campus, to hear first-hand from our academics about their research focus. These events smooth the pathway for both sides to engage more effectively, understand each other’s priorities and find mutual areas of potential collaboration.

In her current collaborative work with business, Dr Gupta is now working with Process Instruments who are co-funding a PhD student to look at aspects of the sensor technology in more detail.

Given this experience, what would Dr Gupta suggest to other early career researchers embarking on their first business collaboration?

Put clear communications frameworks in place: Understand the needs of all parties and ensure they can communicate and discuss how to achieve their individual goals. For example, balancing the conflicting interests of the funded PhD student between the development of the fundamental research and its application, or ensuring that the research team get the appropriate insights from industry into real production issues such as the materials used, fabrication and margins from large scale production, providing direction for the fundamental development of the sensors.

Clarity: Be very clear on the offering; what is it? What is the scope of working with business?

Focus on the relationships: Ask yourself, can you work with the people within this business and can you work with how that business operates? Will this be a mutually beneficial relationship that the business is invested in and will it enhance my career?

Flexibility: Be adaptable. Ensure that you can be flexible enough to incorporate working with a business into your overall work.

For a more established researcher, there is still a lot to be gained in developing their industry ties.

Professor Jon Preece, also from the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham, is an internationally recognised expert in the field of nanoscale science. Professor Preece has worked with industry throughout his career. Combining the impact from his collaborative work, his understanding of the business world and the opportunities for innovation, Professor Preece has launched two spin-out companies from his research, with his long term collaborator Dr Alex Robinson from the School of Chemical Engineering, Irresistible Materials Ltd and ChromaTwist Ltd. He is the CEO of ChromaTwist, which is applying a novel class of fluorescent dyes discovered in his laboratories, for a broad range of applications in the biological and biotechnological fields, as well as in organic electronics. His willingness to engage with business throughout his career has helped to position him very firmly in this new venture, and ChromaTwist has recently been selected as a “one to watch” company for the Nature Spinoff Prize, and last year saw ChromaTwist shortlisted as a finalist in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies Competition. The Nature Spinoff Prize has been established by Nature Research in partnership with Merck to showcase and celebrate global excellence in the commercialisation of research through the creation of spinoff companies.

Below are some of Jon’s thoughts on working with industry and spinning out:

Why Work With Industry: For me I have always been practically minded, and enjoy solving practical problems. Undergraduate summer holidays saw me working as a labourer on Kier building sites, but I ended up organising the builders, and being asked if I wanted to train as a civil engineer! So, applying my science to industrial challenges is part of my DNA. I enjoy the process of understanding something which is unrelated to my core activity, and seeing how my science can be applied to solve it. What I had not expected was that this process, although what you might call applied science, leads to new science and knowledge, helping my fundamental research. Then, of course, REF impact has gained in significance over the last two REF cycles, so having a portfolio of industry facing activities is not only good for the individual, but also your research unit, in order to ensure a pipeline of Impact Case Studies. I contributed one case study in REF2014, and in REF2021 I will contribute 2, with 3 developing beyond that.

Make the time for industry engagement: Like most things in life, you get out what you put in. Investing time into the partners in an industrial relationship is vital, much of the business decision to invest in collaboration is based on trust; in you, your research, your teams, and your facilities. Engaging with industry, to develop a funded project, can take more time than grant proposal writing. This time element is especially true when first getting to know the company, as they are doing their peer-review of you directly!

Understand business needs: Your working style may need to adapt when engaging with business rather than other stakeholders in academia. Meetings and presentations, along with timelines, can vary significantly and academics should work with their business engagement team for the right support and guidance to manage this process as well as with managing the contract and overall relationship.

Use the power of external networks: Finding connections and engaging with the right businesses can happen in many different, and perhaps surprising, ways. It is not only through formal channels, but informal ones, such as in discussions with parents at your child’s school, where I have found a business angel and a company that is interested in collaborating to make diagnostic test strips. A contact from when I was a sixth former (more than 30 years ago) led to a collaborative research project to develop a liquid formulation for drug medication of paediatrics and geriatrics. The first patent has just been filed and the company are contracting a CMO to manufacture 1000L for trials.

Don’t forget the internal networks: Connecting with other academics in other Schools and Colleges and seeing how your work might tie into some of the broader strategic partners at the University is critical in building up collaborative industry projects. This is how I started engagement with a large multinational in the fast moving consumer goods industry, and this successful relationship has continued and grown for over a decade, with several joint projects, patents and a REF Impact Case study.

Challenges to Working with Industry: A perceived challenge to getting academic scientists to engage in industry funded research is overcoming the perception that academics do not gain as much credibility with their peers, or it will not be counted towards promotion, at least not in the way winning a large academic peer reviewed grant and the publications that follow, relative to non-peer reviewed industry funding and patents. However, I think that working with industry is now integrated into many university awards and promotions processes, so no one should fear engaging in this activity, especially whilst the REF results are so intimately linked with it.

Spinning Out: spinning out a company from your University research is a much less well trodden path. Much effort is required up front by an academic in spinning out, with no guarantee that the company will be a success, and the sums of money you might win in setting up the company and operating can be relatively small and may not be recorded against your personal grant capture. On the other hand, the gains if the company is successful are huge both personally and for the institution. My advice is that if you take the entrepreneurial route, then expect risk and uncertainty in the beginning, but maximise the upsides by keeping your Head of School, School Director of Research and Head of REF fully appraised of what you are doing and are achieving. The University does want to hear about these activities, so talk to communications officers and apply for spin-out company competitions. These competitions promote not only the winners, but shortlisted companies. The university will want to know about these successes, and they will raise your profile. I have found it hugely challenging, stretching and rewarding, and I haven’t made a fortune…yet!

Contributions from Dr Ruchi Gupta and Professor Jon Preece, School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham.