Innovation blog: Making an impact through innovation

Sue O'Hare

Central to the success of translating innovation into practice and ensuring the success of university-industry collaboration is the role of professionally skilled technology and knowledge exchange teams, which facilitate those partnerships to take into account and reconcile the aims of both academic and commercial interests. Collaboration isn’t just about money, and long-term relationships benefit from several points of engagement between organisations where activities may move at a different pace but ultimately support the same overall goals.

As the UK's leading professional association for research commercialisation practitioners, with thousands of members from universities and public research organisations, as well as professional service providers and other commercial organisations, PraxisUnico supports and enhances the UK’s reputation by delivering professional training programmes around the world. Through our activities of training, networking, advocacy and events, we connect people, develop practitioners, and promote best practice in technology and knowledge exchange. We have seen time and again, that, like all collaborative partnerships, interactions between universities/research institutions and businesses work best when both parties are able to invest the necessary resources (largely time) in gaining a mutual understanding of culture, priorities and drivers or KPIs.

It should be recognised that the major motivation for universities to interact with business is to generate impact. The primary motivation is not to make money, although in the process a great deal of monetary value has often been generated. A core role for universities is to reach out to and engage with businesses, from blue chip, multinational entities to SMEs and social enterprises. Innovation centres and Science Parks providing space and innovation support to growing small businesses are often nestled under the wing of a supportive HEI, and there is a steady stream of news stories about successes by incubators, university spin-out companies and R&D investment. Universities are funding success in the technology and life sciences sectors and generating spin-outs, recognising that intellectual assets can be vital in facilitating university-business engagement and in supporting business innovation.

Business innovation mechanisms and styles vary by sector and size of company. Finding the right models for the right circumstances requires both (or all) parties to be open about their intentions and circumstances and to avoid being too ‘rule-bound’ on either side. Technology and knowledge exchange professionals can unlock value and save time by identifying the most appropriate, and often creative, mechanisms and style for the situation. In some cases it is appropriate to facilitate ‘sharing’ or ‘pooling’ of IP for the benefit of an industry consortium, while in other cases, small innovative companies backed by private equity might find it important to have an exclusive licence to relevant university IP in order to strengthen their competitive position.

In many cases the biggest contribution that is made to business innovation is when the originators of IP in universities share their perspective with business, sometimes with the technology and knowledge exchange practitioner acting as mediator, to develop trust and work together towards common goals. Often these goals are not spin-out companies or licences but rather a long-term collaborative relationship where mutual understanding of motivations develops, and each partner respects the other’s strengths.