“Transforming translation in the UK” at the Royal Society | Part 2: roundtable discussions

“Transforming translation in the UK” at the Royal Society | Part 2: roundtable discussions

Tekiu attended the Royal Society’s conference on ‘Translation of research in the UK’ held on 31st of October. The conference explored current challenges surrounding translation of research into successful business outcomes. With presentations from industry, academia, and government, the conference also provided an arena to discuss how these challenges can be overcome. Read our reflections and summary of the conference in Part 1 of this blog post. In this second part we focus on the conference’s roundtable discussions, which brought together key stakeholders across the innovation continuum to deliberate on these key challenges and share views on good practice and ways we can foster stronger relationships within the translation of research ecosystem. Discussions covered the topics of industry-university connections, identification of industry or university partners, and the role of the Royal Society in supporting effective translation of research.

 Haven't read part 1? You can find it here!

Barriers to industry-academia engagement

Discussions between delegates revolved around the more nuanced barriers that universities and industry face when trying to engage with each other and how these can be overcome. For example, building a network and reputation is key for SMEs’ growth; universities can create engaging environments that foster relationship building – from dinners to workshops with alumni and industry representatives. Working together opens up opportunities that are unavailable as individuals such as knowledge transfer partnerships or the Newton Fund. This is important because the focus of translation is on access to technology, knowledge, expertise, and training. The latter, several delegates argued, can often be underrated but it is central to building the capacity to create partnerships. Facilitated exchanges through independent organisations can support the process and it is important to recognise that building reputation and trust takes time and personal engagement.

Delegates also discussed the need for dedicated investment in translation. This implies longer term support that can yield lasting returns such as investment in horizon scanning, opportunity scouting, and in-team members who can ‘join the dots’ between industry and academia in key trends. BASF, for example, have invested in a dedicated foresight and scouting strategy. They also have specialised teams – trend scouts – that begin idea-hunting with customers and other interested parties to identify and implement new business opportunities based on trend developments in various industries, consumer behaviour, and regulation.

What is the most effective way of identifying suitable partners?

Discussions also focused on what is needed to facilitate good connections and relationship building between academia and industry. Some highlighted underlying attitudinal problems: universities’ attitudes toward industry and industries’ perception of universities, which erect barriers to engagement. Mutual understanding can be tainted by preconceptions and perception on reputation. Several delegates highlighted that a culture change is urgently needed and that it would involve a series of parallel actions. At the most basic level, “people talking to each other” at events such as this hosted by third parties like the Royal Society, which enable making connections and open discussion of common issues. At the same time, “a good front door” and a savvy point of contact that can see both industry’s and academia’s point of view. Once engaged, the process of negotiation needs to be open and clear, where what all parties want and where everyone’s red lines are, are outlined and discussed to achieve mutual understanding – and ultimately respect as the foundation for lasting collaborative partnerships. A good guide to partnership building is David Gage’s book  The Partnership Charter. The book offers guidance on a document that clearly outlines the goals, expectations, responsibilities, and relationships of the partners.

How can universities connect more effectively with potential industry partners?

Other key factors and conditions necessary for an effective industry-university partnership is to build physical connections. For example through doctoral training partnerships or key account / industry managers. Rolls-Royce and GSK present advanced examples of this. Liaison and relationship managers that support translation of research, however, need to have authority to make decisions and to have gained respect to broker contact. In addition, these key ‘connectors’ need to be able to draw on resources and infrastructure to support partnerships. The Materials Innovation Factory  at the University of Liverpool is an example of how to stimulate partnership building by bringing together a productive environment and infrastructure with in-house as well as resident experts.

What does ‘value’ mean for an academic institution and a commercial partner? 

It was agreed among delegates that what universities value the most is money: funding to support research, education, growth, etc. Funding enables them to invest in resources and infrastructure and raises universities’ reputation; impact and racking is also something highly valued by universities. High reputation attracts more high-level students, which fuels funding from fees; it also attracts talent and high-level staff. High reputation also enables universities to shape disciplines and have a higher stake in industry.

What are the biggest challenges in negotiating value for both sides?

When it comes to negotiating value the main pain points highlighted were commercial contracts and the concomitant legal negotiations coupled with unreasonable expectations on value and level of control over outputs. Another pain point is the difference in pace between industry and academia (varying between sectors) and their appetite for risk. However, because much of the partnership building depends on people and frequent communication, the loss of key contacts or those managing the relationships is seen one of the biggest challenges. It was also noted, however, that “if it is important to both sides, things will go very quickly” – in line with the old adage: where there is a will, there is a way. Linked to this, it was highlighted that “not being bold enough to say that there is a problem and address it” is also a more hidden problem. Another challenge discussed was TTO’s approach to marketing being mainly desk-bound, which limits their understanding about their sector: “they need to get out there and engage with industry”. Delegates also discussed that in general, parties hardly ever explore the option of ‘walking away’ if there is considerable mismatch in value, mainly for “fear of having invested time and energy into something and nothing to show for it”.

Delegates concluded that in any negotiation setting boundaries is key: a framework that outlines agreement on financials, IP, and people. The Lambert Toolkit is a good standard model agreement that assists academic or research institutions and industrial partners who wish to carry out research projects together.

Is there anything that the Royal Society can do to support effective partnership building?

Conference delegates also discussed the Royal Society’s role as a uniquely positioned, independent organisation that can identify the main gaps and tensions in translation of research. Results from such research can inform their training programmes and the design of targeted events that foster industry-academic-government relations. Through its events, the Royal Society can help pinpoint tensions and shed light on emergent issues in the complex and changing landscape of translation of research.

Supporting fluidity in translation of research

The landscape of research and innovation is continuously changing. Yet, some of the main barriers and issues that prevent a fluid translation of research into tangible solutions to real world problems stem from limited exchange and mutual understanding. Successful players in the UK’s innovation landscape share their insights and experiences in facilitating translation of research: listen to our interviews with Oxford University Innovation and the Centre for Process Innovation.

Tekiu, together with SKS are organising technical visits, Discovery Trips, to bring together key players in the tech transfer and translation of research ecosystem to learn from each other’s good practices, successes and failures, policies, regulations, and initiatives that take research forward to develop new products, services, or interventions that benefit society. You can learn more about our project here.

About the Author

Dr. Cindy Regalado is managing director of Tekiu Ltd. 

Tekiu is a research-intensive organisation dedicated to designing and delivering high-quality, tailored, international fact-finding and technical visits – Discovery Trips – as well as multi-year government programmes for international business partnering and R&D collaborations – Partnering Programmes. We organise Discovery Trips and Partnering Programmes in the fields of health and life sciences, research and innovation systems, social policy, engineering and environmental technology, smart cities, and the digital economy. Discovery Trips and Partnering Programmes enable clients to identify innovation gaps and answer crucial questions that help them thrive and respond to challenges in innovation and strategic planning, market expansion, socio-economic uncertainty, etc. On the basis of our expertise in designing and leading complex programmes, we also provide evaluation services to third parties for national and multinational programmes.

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