Academics lack understanding to make business-university links work, says study

Report says projects fail when scholars obsessed with “shiny things” ignore business needs

July 28, 2015
Two men looking surprised in an office
Source: Rex
Bangs and bucks: firms want scholarly partners to focus on their bottom line

A third of companies surveyed for a new study say that academics lack the commercial understanding needed to make a business-university collaboration work.

Building Successful Collaborations: The SME’s Viewpoint on Partnering with a University, a report compiled by data firm Beauhurst, which works with universities to help them engage with the commercial world, spoke to 30 businesses working with a university in a collaborative research project funded by the government agency Innovate UK.

It found that 32 per cent of the firms disagreed when asked if the academics understood the potential impact of the project on their business. The report goes on to suggest that “a raft of potential projects have failed to start because of a lack of commercial understanding by the academic approached”.

Ben McLeod, senior associate at Beauhurst, said the “cultural differences” between businesses and academics were huge: academics enjoy asking questions and creating “new shiny things” but small and medium-sized enterprises are “driven by profit” and “creating a business that creates revenue and drives a product into the market”.

“One of the key things that needs to continue to change is the incentives to get innovation to not just create shiny things, but shiny things that change the world and are able and encouraged to be moved into businesses,” he said. “We’re trying to match up the people with the shiny things with the people who are able to turn them into successful products and business.”

As such, communication and relationship management from an early stage is crucial for business-university collaborations to work.

“University bureaucracy winds businesses up and makes partnerships hard to achieve. Managing the relationship carefully, making sure everyone is aware of everyone’s limitations [is crucial],” he said. “If you’re a business, you shouldn’t expect things to happen tomorrow.”

Angus Laing, dean of business and economics at Loughborough University and chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools, said universities must “join up our expertise across disciplines”.

“Business schools working with STEM faculty and other disciplines have the expertise to understand a business’ needs and the opportunities for commercialising research innovations,” he said. “Together, we can tackle the 32 per cent of businesses who feel their business potential is not understood.”

Ruth McKernan, chief executive of Innovate UK, said innovative SMEs will help “our world-class universities to turn excellence into economic impact”.

The Dowling Review also highlights the importance of university-business collaboration and very much fits with my vision of where I want Innovate UK to go,” she said. “If we are funding quality research, we are selling the country short if we don’t find a way to translate that into business and economic value.”


Print headline: Think business, not ‘shiny things’

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Reader's comments (8)

I read the report, and can't see how you can write such a negative article, given that the executive summary says that 89% of partnerships were deemed an overall success and 96% of the businesses would consider a further collaboration with a University. Yes there are challenges on both sides of the University-Industry relationship, but the report seems to suggest that overall it is a resounding success.
I have some difficulty accepting the basic premise in this article. "Ben McLeod, senior associate at Beauhurst, said the “cultural differences” between businesses and academics were huge: academics enjoy asking questions and creating “new shiny things” but small and medium-sized enterprises are “driven by profit” and “creating a business that creates revenue and drives a product into the market”." Bearing in mind the sample size - 30 SMEs (By the way Editor, please remove the apostrophe in the article.) - these comments about the different motivations of academics and SME owners/managers would seem more like opinions than sound, survey-based, conclusions. They certainly ignore the many commercial spin-outs from universities and the many social enterprises which flourish in the SME sector. My experience, note not a survey conclusion, is that factors such as timescales (responsiveness) and cost base both also have a significant influence on the ability of the two types of organizations working together.
Hi Wilf and Phil, Thanks for the feedback on the story, it's much appreciated. I didn't set out to write an explicitly negative article, I found what I thought was the most interesting news line from the report. The report, as suggested, does highlight the positives of business-university collaborations and that's why I went for comment from both the academic and industry side. Happily, I feel everyone quoted was leaning towards the same conclusion about improving future collaborations; which is surely a positive thing. As Ben was the person who drew the survey together, his comments are completely valid and an explanation for why the survey's results might have been what they were. The report's conclusions are there to see, both in the article and the link to the report, so I'm not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I'm really glad that the story encouraged you both to read the report and join in the discussion. John PS The apostrophe is correct as it is talking about the singular possessive of SME.
Wilf Marshall's comment on timescales (responsiveness) and cost base touch very few of the factors that may ameliorate the cooperation between SME and universities if further studies are conducted with Innovate UK initiative how to improve the partnering. The international experience shows that a mediator (the third party) is usually needed for a success of collaboration. Look at how nanotechnologies and innovative products have been gradually introduced from academic side into the market in Moscow due to smart suggestions by Mr Chubais. Georg Stompel, Kyiv
Dear Readers, I very much agree with the the article and with the comments from the academic community. It is challenging in 500 words to cover a full report and I'm grateful that John has stimulated the debate. The UK is a great place to do research and to do business. I feel strongly that it is important that we make the most of those strengths. I was heartened to be able to write a report with so much good news on how universities and their academics have made that happen. 89% of companies agreed their collaboration was a success. The purpose of the report was to celebrate that success but also to find where we can do even better. This article rightly highlights that a weak link is academic-CEO relations. In the future I hope we can report that the 32% has fallen further still! Behind the scenes I have spoken to knowledge transfer experts about industry issues. As John and Wilf say, my thoughts are indeed theories to explain the survey results. Please do take a look at what John and I didn’t have time to discuss. I’d be delighted to respond to further comments. All the best, Ben
Ben, if the purpose of the report was to celebrate success, why the headline bemoaning failure?
Hi Phil, The headline was written by THE staff and is nothing to do with Ben. John
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