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University-business links are about more than technology transfers


Themes: Entrepreneurship

University-business links In the battle for new ideas, many businesses gain valuable insights and new research from their links with universities. Business parks, academic consultants and technology transfers, for example, all play a part in helping businesses compete. But what determines which universities link with a particular business? And what ensures that a corporation gets the ideas and knowledge that add real value to their business?

It was to answer such questions that Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics at Cambridge Judge Business School, conducted extensive research with over 30 UK universities and businesses to unravel the secret dynamics of such links.

Mr Kitson’s report draws on cases from more than 30 UK universities and companies from a variety of sectors and sizes. This is the first part of a wider research project being carried out by the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE).

According to the report, universities play four key roles in their links with business. First, they provide education; second, they increase the stock of codified knowledge through publications, patents and prototypes; third, they solve problems through contract research, technology licensing and faculty consulting; and, fourth, they provide a public space including facilitating the formation of networks and influencing the direction of research through meetings and conferences, forums and entrepreneurship centres.

So why do companies seek help from universities and who is their point of contact? The report suggests businesses approach universities for a variety of reasons from seeking expert help on how to tackle the challenges they face in their particular industry, to problem solving and insights into a specific issue. It showed that companies typically establish a few ground rules before embarking on a link with a university, namely identifying how a particular university can help them, determining how they will benefit from the outcomes and establishing precisely how the knowledge transfer will happen.

The report also revealed that establishing and co-ordinating a successful link depends on well-informed individuals, which it calls ‘gatekeepers’. In order to broker the best relationship, the gatekeeper (often on both sides) needs to have a deep understanding of both the research environment and the business needs of the company concerned. These individuals also need to consider how the research outcomes will be embedded in the company going forward.

Sometimes collaborations operate on an informal basis, founded on mutual connections. In other cases, formal contracts are drawn up. In the case of the latter, the report says it is important that the two sides agree on their mutual expectations and motivations. One common point of contention between universities and businesses in such negotiations was around Intellectual Property (IP), with disagreements over whether the university’s IP would add an immediate and direct value to the business.

University-business interactions can take many forms. They can be collaborative arrangements between companies or in some cases a consortium of companies and a university. Joining a consortium is a good way for some businesses to get access to pre-competitive knowledge relatively cheaply, the report suggests. Other arrangements include hiring academics as consultants or funding employees on PhD or engineering programmes. It can also be formed through networks or the licensing of technology.

It is important to be able to measure the outcome of links with universities and here again businesses opt for a variety of different methods, including financial or non-financial key performance indicators, and in some cases, an evaluation survey.

It is not always obvious what a business will be seeking from a link with a university. For example, technology-based companies will not necessarily want a university to help it research into its own technology. Rather it might want help in the development and deployment of business processes. In this case the link would be with a marketing and management science faculty rather than a technology department. It can also be misleading if companies assume that applied research will lead directly to a business use. The report found that, in some cases, the so-called ‘applied’ research required further development.

Finally, companies found different ways to absorb and embed the knowledge gained. In some it was a pure technology transfer; in others, the companies assigned considerable staff time and resource to making sure the knowledge was disseminated throughout the organisation.

Businesses look to a range of places for good ideas whether it is for technological advances or new management concepts that will improve business efficiencies. Mr Kitson’s report shows that they need to plan carefully how they will develop deeper links with a university and be clear about what they hope to get out of it. The knack of finding the most useful connection with a university is often facilitated by so-called ‘gatekeepers’ – people in business and university who understand what they can gain from a connection. This can start from relatively informal meetings, but can lead to some important lessons for business life. Experts on the outside can offer fresh and hugely insightful views to business leaders preoccupied with the day-to-day battle for profits, as well as specific knowledge transfers. Planning these links and finding good connectors to bridge the two parties is a critical part of making the effort worthwhile, contributing to sharper competitive edge and better business performance.

Further Reading

Abreu, M., Grinevich, V., Hughes, A., Kitson, M. and Ternouth, P. (2008) “University-business links in the UK: boundary spanning, gatekeepers and the process of knowledge exchange”. Consultation report produced for the Centre for Business Research (CBR), University of Cambridge and the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE)

– Research article produced by Morice Mendoza