Many academic staff excel in research but might lack the intrapreneurial zest and commercial skills to develop practical opportunities.
Discover how to apply key principles of productive innovation to make Knowledge Exchange in innovation more productive.
The higher education sector has a rich history of research and development, at the heart of the UK and global technological, scientific and creative innovation. The University of Oxford’s development of the COVID-19 vaccine in collaboration with AstraZeneca, the estimated 4300 new start-up spin outs from Universities in 2019, and the 433 patents filed by leading UK universities in 2022 are just some examples of how vital the Higher Education sector is to the UK economy.
But when it comes to developing relationships with local businesses, empowering bottom up innovation, and transferring research potential into genuine, tangible, scaleable use-cases, there’s an ‘exchange’ gap. The Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) measures a university’s impact on the economy and society, namely how they collaborate with external partners from businesses to community groups. The KEF dashboard shows that many universities are lacking in a lot of business collaborations, even when Intellectual Property and teaching outcomes are high, reflecting that SMEs often find it challenging to access and leverage university research, compared to larger organisations who have the resources to do so.
Bridging the Knowledge Exchange Gap
To bridge this gap, universities have been pursuing more formalised Knowledge Exchange programmes, designed to stimulate, capture and accelerate collaborations between researchers, university facilities and resources, and enterprising businesses on the customer/end-user frontline. And there have been some successes, notably through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), some of which have resulted in significant innovations in the design and manufacturing of products, as well as commercialisation of research and capacity building within associates and university students/faculty.
However, there are challenges with this approach:
At the heart of these challenges is something more fundamental. When facing a new threat, or opportunity, organisations naturally deploy strength tools to deal with it. Given traditional academic R&D frameworks, funding mechanisms and success criteria are bread and butter to universities, there has been a fall back to these methods to engage with Knowledge Exchange. As a result, Knowledge Exchange activities are by nature envisioned, designed and operated within the framework of Academic approaches. But Innovation in this sense isn’t an academic exercise.
To counter this, Universities should apply lessons from the corporate, private sector world – with its relentless focus on outcomes, evidence and experimentation – to Knowledge Exchange , tailoring it for the context and adopting key principles.
Three principles that Universities should apply:
1. Be More Intrapreneurial
Innovation with a capital ‘I’ is a big concept – it immediately conjures images of large R&D teams, deep technology, significant funding and long lead times. This is scary, and creates a sense of innovation as a closed domain for full time innovation / research staff. But innovation (with a small ‘i’) accounts for a significant proportion of new ideas. This involves the stimulation, capture and support for ideas from across organisations, encouraging a more entrepreneurial approach in existing staff to take challenges, opportunities and ideas that they see in real time and generate impactful propositions out of them. This is a new mindset – one that empowers academic staff to be able to move ideas forward themselves, validating use cases for new or existing research, proactively developing relationships in the business / third sector communities, and pitching these concepts to leaders / investors for further funding and support. By fostering ‘Intrapreneurs’ across departments, universities can make productive use of existing resources and creativity, whilst sourcing new ideas and Knowledge Exchange collaborations from the bottom up, repeatedly.
2. Adopt an Evidence-lead Approach
The business world is oftentimes a ruthless place. Success is measured on financial impact, evidence and business model sustainability – or the backing of significant venture capital that takes into account future outcomes and scalability. A key aspect of business performance is an understanding of and deep connection with customers, and how they use any given product or service provided by the business. Knowledge of customer pain-points, use cases and value delivery is vital for any start-up, scale-up or established business to thrive – ultimately, no matter how ‘good’ an idea is, if no-one wants or needs it, then it’s a useless endeavour.
In Academia, a traditional approach is to focus on the ambition and intensity of the research itself, seeking value and validation in further funding for, you guessed it, further research. The use case – and eventual application of this research – is often missed at this stage. That’s ‘not our job’, say Academics. But if there’s no customer or end-user application of the research from the outset, the research and progress itself can be directionless – and most importantly for innovation outcomes, we have to retrofit use cases at the end of this phase.
For businesses, who are reliant on need and use to establish a functioning entity, the dissonance here can be a huge blocker to collaboration. Universities should seek the input and direction from those on the ‘frontline’ when considering which research to pursue, and keep this evidence and validation at the heart of development projects. Only then will ‘applied research’ materialise, and smooth the pathways to effective collaboration with businesses and communities to create genuine impact through knowledge.
3. Prioritise Stakeholder Value
Finally, engaging the business ecosystem and other local partners requires a sense of shared language and value. One of the biggest blockers we see when supporting Universities to engage with local businesses is a tendency to revert to house terminology. It’s unlikely that many businesses will be familiar with the concepts of Knowledge Exchange or KTPs – in many cases, they’re not even aware of the kinds of support that Universities can offer, especially in how that applies to their organisations. Likewise, Academia can sometimes be a closed shop – with many in the academic community initially choosing this career path to focus on their deep interests and avoid the commercial world, there’s a lack of incentive to foster propositions that ‘make money’ as a primary (or at least functional) objective. On top of this, university research can be perceived as ‘early-stage’ and off putting to business investment – or even conflicts with a larger organisations in-house innovation / R&D pipeline.
A language and priority barrier is thus raised. Taking that down requires intention. Universities can start by getting to know their audience better – what really matters to their prospective partners? Time and capacity can be real constraints in small to medium sized businesses, so to give up human resources (and potentially funding) to a project, these organisations need to be convinced that it will lead to both long and short term returns. Added to this, institutions need to succinctly and effectively communicate what they have on offer – in principle, a business would be investing in knowledge, and that comes in many different forms. That knowledge needs to be pragmatically used to deliver business value – commercial or otherwise – in return. That means moving away from just showcasing the latest technology instalment or business support workshop, and developing personalised, meaningful interactions with the sector that prioritises value, evidence and action on both sides.
We’ve found from experience that striking a balance that keeps innovative principles at heart, whilst applying the social and community lead nuances of the academic space and it’s associated rigour, can open up a whole new raft of collaborations that unlocks community outcomes and begins to seriously apply the huge, latent potential of academia in the hands of entrepreneurial, customer-centric organisations.
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