Why businesses and universities should work together

There is a long-standing view that our universities are places where students go to learn theory and are a source of potential talent but have little to offer businesses directly.

Where perhaps in the increasingly distant past universities were guilty of being aloof, this is a view that is increasingly outdated and many companies could be missing out on a wide range of opportunities that could help their businesses to grow – such as developing innovative new products and services, accessing highly-skilled talent and facilities and the commercialising of intellectual property.

Last year the Government commissioned a report into how universities and businesses should work with each other more closely. The ‘Encouraging a British Invention Revolution’ review, written by Sir Andrew Witty, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, concluded that universities need to focus on working closely with SMEs, as well as making economic growth a top priority.

Sir Andrew’s review also recommended universities engage with Local Enterprise Partnerships to link with local businesses in research and development. As well as leading on collaborative research programmes that would develop technologies to give UK businesses a competitive advantage in global markets.

This view that universities offer a rich seam of growth opportunities was reinforced recently by the creation of the Small Business Charter following a recommendation by Government business adviser Lord Young.

The charter was established to recognise the efforts of business schools to work in collaboration with SMEs to deliver growth.

The political message is clear. Government recognises the benefits that are accrued for the economy and for enterprise – particularly with SMEs – when universities and businesses work closely together.

This message is getting through to universities and they are responding by focusing more closely on how they can offer real advantages to businesses including investments in specialist facilities.

At Lancaster University this is something we have long recognised and engagement with businesses and communities, along with research and teaching, forms one of the key priorities in our strategy.

We have made a succession of significant investments in facilities with business interactions at the forefront of planning. These include our InfoLab21 IT centre of excellence and the Lancaster Environment Centre, both of which include co-location space for businesses to be based within academic departments – providing greater opportunities for exchanges of ideas over water-coolers.

We have also recently announced plans for a new Health Innovation Campus at Lancaster that will, among other things, have a strong focus on working with businesses to develop technologies for assisted living. And more and more universities across the UK are making similar investments in new facilities where working closely with businesses forms a core objective.

Even today most interactions between businesses and universities tend to be with large corporations.

At Lancaster University we also work with large organisations such as IBM and Unilever, but we also recognised early on the great importance of SMEs to the UK economy. Leading research-based universities like Lancaster are increasingly focused on ensuring that our research delivers genuine impact on society and the economy, so working alongside SMEs is becoming increasingly important in meeting these objectives.

Since 1999 at Lancaster we have worked with more than 5,000 SMEs. We have also helped to create over 250 new business and more than 4,000 new jobs.

The ways we work with SMEs takes many forms. There are individual research collaborations to create a new technology that will give the business a competitive advantage. There are teams of student consultants who can spend time within a business working on a particular project – such as creating a marketing plan – at very low cost. University management schools are also excellent places for leaders to reflect on, and develop, their business through specialist programmes deep-rooted in academic research.

Increasingly universities are looking to develop novel ways that leverage public funding to help benefit SMEs. At Lancaster University we have established research-based programmes specifically focused on boosting UK SMEs. One such example is the £5.1 million Lancaster China Catalyst Project which has received funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Lancaster University and Lancashire County Council.

This project looks to exploit our long-established links with China to help around 400 UK businesses, create 240 jobs and boost the economy by £40m by providing a support package worth more than £70k and developing collaborative research projects with Chinese partners. Other universities will also have international links that they will look to exploit for the benefit of business. Teaming up with universities is a great way for SMEs to make their first tentative steps into international markets.

There has been, and continues to be, a cultural and strategic shift by universities to become more engaged with the communities they are located within and to the businesses and organisations that contribute to the prosperity of those communities.

Universities are hubs of bright ideas, scientific endeavour, cutting-edge facilities and innovation excellence. They also have international reach, contacts and the ability to tap into sources of public funding.

The opportunities are there and leaders of growth-hungry SMEs should take advantage of these world-class resources on their doorstep.

Professor Andrew Atherton, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University