Last week we published an initial analysis of all the evidence that we have compiled to date about good practice in research commercialisation, and invited university experts to provide us with additional views, weblinks and papers as responses to a survey.

This evidence will inform the work of the HEFCE-universities Knowledge Exchange Framework programme. We are focused in the current exercise on the exploitation of intellectual property in research and development (R&D) partnerships and contracting, as spin-off company formation was reviewed in the 2016 McMillan review of technology transfer.

In this exercise We are working with university expert bodies in research and knowledge exchange (KE) – the Association of Research Managers and Administrators on research contracting practice, and PraxisUnico and the Association for University Research and Industry Links on the KE practices involved in R&D partnering.

We benefitted particularly from discussions with university experts on these issues at the PraxisUnico annual conference in Sheffield on 15 and 16 June.

Research commercialisation, in the form of co-creation of R&D between universities and businesses or other users, is a major commercialisation route. In 2014-15, UK universities earned £1.26 billion in income for collaborative research, £1.21 billion from contract research and £442 million in consultancy.

Joint R&D activities forge a link between universities, research and businesses, build absorptive capacity in businesses through developing research and other skills, and provide resource and directions for core university research activity.

For our initial analysis of good practices, we scrutinised the institutional strategies submitted to us for Higher Education Innovation Fund allocations. This included considering analysis from an overview report on strategies being published this July of the amount of this funding universities spent on R&D partnering.

In 2016-17 (the first year of the new institutional strategies), this was £64.9 million – more than double the amount spent on spinning-off and licensing.

What are universities doing to improve R&D partnerships?

First, universities are trying to find, develop and sustain strategic research partnerships of various sorts. Ideally, strategic partnerships between a university and a business transcend the transactional status of a single contract to become multi-functional (reaching beyond KE), long-term, and embedded or structural.

Universities note, though, that businesses around the globe are becoming more selective in their partnerships, making competition for these sorts of partners more intense. As a result, many universities are exploring ways to develop new partners, for example using student or graduate projects as a mechanism to diagnose the potential for a deeper relationship with small and medium-sized enterprises which may be ready for R&D involvement.

Secondly, universities are investing in a wide range of centres of expertise, hubs and networks that bring together researchers and enterprises. These may be cross-disciplinary, or focused according to grand challenge, spatial, industrial or technological sector criteria.

User-related themes for networks or centres may be a way of organising internal KE support, as well as external partnerships. Universities also perceive a policy trend towards focusing resources on national centre developments, and hence are seeking to attract national attention by identifying and promoting their competitive capabilities through their centres and networks.

Thirdly, universities are focused on reducing the time and costs involved in administering and managing partnering and contracting. This may involve the use of standardised policies or templates, better ICT-enabled working, devolved and simplified decision-making and improved professional human resources management.

There are three drivers for this:

  • First, most universities are concerned to reduce time pressures on their academics in engaging in KE.
  • Second, universities want to reduce burden on their business and other partners, making the relationships more productive, and making it more likely that the partnership will become strategic and long lived.
  • Thirdly, universities are concerned to reduce their own costs in managing partnerships, contracts and bidding opportunities, which are likely to involve a huge range of partners, geographical locations, legal jurisdictions, types of agreement and topics.

Finally, universities are focused on developing partnering skills and experience in academics, researchers, students and their professional staff. This offers the potential to improve levels of research commercialisation activity, increase satisfaction of businesses and develop employability and entrepreneurship skills and opportunities.

We are seeking additional evidence and views from university experts to help us focus and refine our analysis of good practice to date. We welcome papers, weblinks or views as responses to our survey by Monday 4 September.