5 key takeaways from the Dowling Review on business university research collaboration

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Earlier this month, we saw the release of the Dowling Review of Business-University research collaborations. For manufacturers, collaboration with universities is a key way to boost the level and effectiveness of innovation.

Many manufacturers already collaborate with universities on innovation – our Innovation Monitor 2014/15 showed that over half of manufacturers had worked with research institutions. However, these collaborations come with a range of challenges – for universities and business – which the Dowling review has considered in some depth.

This blog looks at the five key things you should take away from the Dowling Review.

#1 Business-university collaboration works

The review found that for businesses that engaged in collaborations, the benefits included:

  • Access to skilled graduates for potential recruitment
  • Support in the development of new processes for business efficiency
  • Reducing the risk associated with new areas of research
  • Expanding a firms network of contacts
  • Exposure to different ideas and insights

#2 Collaborations aren’t easy to get started

Collaboration may be beneficial, but it’s not easy to get started with collaboration. The review found that the key barriers from a business perspective were negotiating IP and finding the correct partner. This chimes with the findings of our previous Innovation Monitor surveys.

The Dowling Review also offers a number of potential ways to ease IP agreements between companies and universities, and suggests Innovate UK and the Intellectual Property Office could work together to set up an independent source of advice for SMEs negotiating contracts with universities.

The Dowling Review’s top ten most highly cited barriers to collaboration

DowlingReviewDiagram

#3 KTPs are great

Government support can help universities and businesses to collaborate more effectively. For manufacturers the key scheme for collaboration is the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, or KTP. KTPs work by placing recently qualified people (at NVQ Level 4, HND, foundation degree, degree and higher degrees) into firms for one to three years to introduce a new product, service or process. This is done in partnership with a university, college, or research organisation.

The scheme has been around for over 40 years and is well liked by universities and business. Amongst EEF members, about a quarter of companies are using, or have used a KTP.

The review rightly notes – as many manufacturers do – that the application processes for KTPs can be quite arduous. Simplification would be welcome, to reduce the burden on companies, though this must remain balanced against that fact that the quality of the partnerships depends on both sides fully understanding each other’s requirements.

Importantly, the process does not put companies off working with universities again. In fact the Dowling Review notes that having gained the experience of working with universities, 86% of businesses reported plans for further collaboration.

#4 Catapult centres are now integral to the UK’s innovation landscape

Catapult centres are physical innovation centres focused on specific technologies or sectors to promote collaboration between business and the research base. They centres were introduced in the last government, and have already made their mark on the landscape. This is particularly true in the case of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, which last year’s Hauser mid-term review noted has experienced high levels of industrial demand since its inception in 2011, leveraging significant amounts of funding from the considerably beyond the levels originally forecast.
This is positive news, and reflects the gap in the innovation ecosystem that the Catapults have now filled. However, if the “one-third one-third one-third” funding balance (we’ve blogged about why this works this before http://www.eef.org.uk/campaigning/news-blogs-and-publications/blogs/2013/jul/fraunhofer-friday-part-2--how-the-fraunhofer-institutes-funding-model-contributes-to-success) is thrown too far out of whack the value of the centres risks being undermined. As the Dowling Review notes the centres needs to continue to receive long-term, sustained support from government — while Catapults have achieved success in attracting industry and grant funding, block funding from government is a critical component of the model.

The review also highlights the importance of enabling the centres to build critical mass, and not growing the network too quickly. It states that gradual growth in the number of Catapults would be beneficial, but any growth in Catapult numbers should only occur if additional funding is available and should not be at the expense of the support assigned to existing Catapults.

#5 A better coordinated innovation strategy would be good for growth and productivity

There are a large number of organisations involved in science and innovation, with universities and innovative businesses at the forefront. But government is also a key player and has the ability to make strategic investments and join together key players in ways that can help build on the UK’s sectoral and technological strengths.

The Dowling review notes that the development of Industrial Strategy has already helped to coordinate resources in this way. In order to ensure future areas of UK competitive advantage are not overlooked, the Dowling Review argues that all the key players – universities and businesses – should be consulted in the development of future industrial strategies as innovation should be a core component of policies aimed at promoting productivity and competitiveness.

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