The Benefits of University-Industry Collaborations

Dr Tamsin Saxton, guest blogger
Dr Tamsin Saxton, guest blogger

Guest blogger, Dr Tamsin Saxton, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Northumbria University shares the insights she gained at an event designed to provide information to support academics in creating and capitalising on opportunities to work with industry. Below, she summarises the key take-home points explaining why industry collaborations are useful, possible barriers to these collaborations, and how to go about setting up and developing collaborations.

Benefits of collaborations

Academics and universities have a lot to gain from collaborating with industry, whether that be local small businesses, global enterprises, or something in between. Industry collaborations can add substantive content, innovation, and expertise to research funding applications. In some instances, industry might contribute directly to university projects, perhaps by supplying funding, or making available rich and extensive data sets. The best applied research addresses fundamental real-world problems; one of the best ways to uncover those problems can be through industrial collaborations, and successful resolution of those problems can lead to the kind of impact that may well be needed in the next REF. Industry collaborations can also enhance the student experience, such as through work experience opportunities or guest lecture invitations.

Industry also has a lot to gain from collaborations with universities. Universities can offer the best in cutting-edge research, which can be tremendously exciting to an enterprise which might be using outdated approaches, or might just not have the time and resources to dedicate to innovation. Even the largest organisations often do not have the research capacity to innovate constantly in relation to all of their activities, which is why we see universities collaborating with industries of all shapes and sizes. A university collaboration can be a mark of prestige and value to a business organisation, increasing its value and standing among its competitors, and also in the eyes of evaluators such as investors. Collaborations also provide opportunities for businesses to reflect upon their working practices.

Collaborations with businesses in the North-East of England have their own particular benefits. Compared to the rest of the UK, the North-East has the lowest number of start-up companies per capita. Accordingly, local collaborations can help improve this record, while building the regional economy and innovative capacity, and potentially tackling specific societal and economic challenges.

Barriers to collaboration

The establishment of industrial collaborations, however, entails overcoming a number of barriers. Universities do not always market their expertise well; it can be very difficult for external organisations to find out essential information: the expertise, skills and equipment available; who is available for and interested in collaborations; how to go about making and developing contacts. Universities can appear to be alien, intimidating environments; the idea of the ‘ivory tower’ can be off-putting. In addition, universities can be perceived to be expensive working partners, they have different priorities from businesses, and businesses and universities speak a different language and run on different timescales.

Exploration-Innovation - M Schmidt (CC by 2.0)
Exploration-Innovation – M Schmidt (CC by 2.0)

Developing successful projects

There are a number of ways to try to overcome the barriers to collaboration and develop successful projects. University Business Engagement Managers are very happy to talk to academics and provide support. They can point academics to suitable business representatives who are also keen to encourage new projects that will support businesses. Indeed, it can often be wise to involve a trusted body, such as an organisation that provides representation for a set of industries, in a project or a funding application. This body can guide academics to suitable local contacts, and explain the priorities, schedules, and needs of the particular industry in question. It’s always important to keep in mind that successful projects are only built on successful relationships with people, and so building relationships has to be paramount. Starting with a small project, such as a dissertation project, can be a good way to build trust and knowledge of different working styles and needs. Finding out what the industry needs, and offering to help, is a more effective opening gambit than striding in with a request for money, input, or project commitment. Finally, once the project is up and running, then a few things might help it proceed smoothly: have a clear plan; establish common goals and projects; and build in engagement opportunities such as workshops or seminars where you keep people up to date with the project development and particularly its successes.

The event, ‘ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Capacity Building Event’, was held on 26th April 2016, and hosted by Newcastle University (Business School). This report was written by event delegate Dr Tamsin Saxton, Senior Lecturer in Psychology (https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/our-staff/s/tamsin-saxton)

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