Last week ONS released data showing that that Business Expenditure on R&D had fallen in 2012. Although this followed an impressive rise the year earlier, it is a concern as the UK already lags behind international competitors in terms of R&D expenditure as a percentage of R&D.
However, EEF research earlier this year showed that - while companies may be more selective about the innovation projects they take forward - they are becoming increasingly ambitious about how they use innovation, using it to develop new products and services for new markets and sectors. Nonetheless, innovation is a challenging process, with a range of barriers including a lack of access to equipment and expertise. Manufacturers use collaboration as a key way to address these concerns.
In recent weeks there have been a couple of reports published that look at how this collaboration could be made more effective. For example, last week the Big Innovation Centre published a report called Collaborate to Innovate, exploring how businesses and universities can better connect with one another. This is an important issue because working with a university or research institute can enable companies to access technical knowledge and specialist facilities that would otherwise be out of reach.
As the Big Innovation Centre's report points out, businesses and universities are already working together. This supports a finding from our Innovation Monitor survey which showed that 62% of innovative manufacturers were working with the research base. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. Indeed, EEF research has shown that companies have some concerns about partnering: firstly, it can be difficult to find the right partner – universities are large and complex organisations after all – and secondly, some companies have concerns about the ownership of Intellectual Property.
The Big Innovation Centre report looks into this second point in some detail and recommends that the institutional infrastructure needs improving. For example, they suggest that the Lambert toolkits – which provide frameworks for IP agreements – should be refreshed to better reflect the way that collaborative partnerships and ‘co-creation' happen. The report also reveals a low level of awareness of these toolkits.
However, they also argue that there is a role for companies to adopt practices of ‘openness to collaboration with academics' and ‘reaching a shared understanding with academics', arguing these practices are more likely to lead to successful collaborations.
A few weeks ago the Witty review published its findings on the same issue. This report had two key recommendations on improving university engagement with smaller businesses: firstly that the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) should be ramped up, and secondly that universities should have a “single point of entry” for SMEs looking to engage.
There is clearly work that can be done to improve how businesses and universities interact. But it is important to note that for many businesses, these relationships are already delivering worthwhile returns. In addition, universities are not the only organisations that companies collaborate with. For manufacturers their customers and suppliers are also key partners. Collaboration - like innovation in general - is a broad activity and there is not a "one size fits all solution". Therefore it is appropriate that there is a range of support in place. Below is a summary of innovation support available to companies, what it provides, and where we believe it could be improved.
Further information on these schemes is available on the TSB's website.