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Firing the grey cells for business success


Themes: Innovation

Research by Professor Alan Hughes has played a pivotal role in the rollout of the highly successful Catapult Centres, which exist to encourage collaboration between academics and entrepreneurs.

The Government’s decision to expand the network of UK Catapult Centres is good news for technology and innovation – and great news for academics at Cambridge Judge Business School, whose research played a pivotal role in their inception.

Speaking at the Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell, Oxfordshire, business secretary Vince Cable said the seven existing Catapults had been so successful that two more would be opened by 2015/16 and an additional £7 million invested in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

“Catapult centres have made a significant contribution over the last year, supporting businesses and developing new technologies. The total public and private sector investment in the Catapults so far is £1.4 billion and further investment will follow,” said Cable.

By committing to investment in new technologies now, we are laying the foundations for the high-growth businesses of the future. This will allow them to grow, take on more employees and keep the UK at the forefront of global innovation.”

Designed to create specialist institutions on the boundaries between universities and business, the seven existing Catapults focus on broad issues such as the future of cities as well as specific technologies like stem cell science; and much of the thinking behind them comes from the Centre for Business Research (CBR) at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The Catapult Centre concept was developed in light of a perceived gap in the UK industrial landscape compared to many of our major industrial rivals,” explains Professor Alan Hughes. “The idea is that they will facilitate the important stages beyond university research which are required to develop commercial applications and encourage their diffusion.”

It’s an idea that flowed from Hughes’s research with his CBR colleagues Andrea Mina and David Connell. Funded by the EPSRC, their work was part of the research programme of the Cambridge Integrated Knowledge Centre (CIKC) in optoelectronics linking scientists and engineers at Cambridge with social scientists at the CBR.

Their research led to detailed fieldwork about how optoelectronic technologies were being developed and exploited in Taiwan, Korea, Belgium, Germany, Holland and the US and, says Hughes: “We uncovered a rich set of institutions which had the specific function of spanning the boundary between university research and industrial applications.”

Published in a working paper, the findings provided crucial evidence to the 2010 Hauser Report on the role of technology and innovation centres in the UK, which in turn fed directly into government policy and the Catapult programme.

The UK has a science capability second only to the US,” says Hauser. “But what Alan’s research with his colleagues showed was that the translational infrastructure, practical ways to close the gap between universities and industries, was missing. The Catapult programme is a neat solution – a way to give the UK genuine competitive advantage, and thereby deliver new industries and transformational economic impact.”

But as well as the impact of their research on government policy and the Catapult Centres themselves, Hughes says there are wider lessons for academics to learn, and that for great research to have great impact, you also need great engagement.

Building links between academia, government and business is something Hughes has taken as seriously as his research for decades. Appointed to the Council for Science and Technology by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron in turn, he has been an adviser to the last three British Prime Ministers.

And at Cambridge Judge Business School, during his tenure as director of the CBR and UK-IRC, he has ensured that half the members of both bodies’ advisory boards are drawn from industry and the boards are chaired by senior industrialists.

According to Hughes: “It’s that richness of engagement that is really the very important part of impact. To have ultimate impact you have to establish excellent research and be able to communicate with industrialists and policy makers and that requires real effort. It’s a full contact sport.”

The Centre for Business Research and UK-IRC have been exceptionally important vehicles for establishing relationships with users, from leaders of large corporate organisations to government policy makers,” he says. “You can’t do this unless you have this rich engagement. That’s the lesson from this.”