UK Knowledge Transfer Initiatives – a Real Example

James Hurley (The Telegraph, 29 Nov, 2012) seems to be somehow surprised about the successful partnership between Helitune (a private UK manufacturer of systems and technology for helicopters) and the University of Bristol. Why would you be surprised?

Not all companies have the internal ability and available resources to investigate a complex technical problem, so using a group of smart external people (i.e. academics) to assess some or all angles of the issue seems like a good solution. Helitune, a UK-based niche manufacturer of equipment and systems for helicopters, decided to partner with the University of Bristol in order to assess how to reduce damaging (and dangerous!) blade vibrations in helicopters’ helixes.

As Hurley described in his article, Helitune is not a giant multinational and is therefore (naturally) lacking some key internal competencies, particularly in the R&D area. The additional advantage here (though UK-specific, although similar schemes do exist in a number of other countries) is that a significant support was provided by the UK Government, which financially backs schemes designed to transfer knowledge from universities to businesses.

The scheme – better known as Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) – effectively matches academics (from PhD and above) with businesses which need help on research / R&D projects. The Technology Strategy Board (TSB), an agency which backs applied science, typically provides two thirds of the funding, with the business expected to come up with the rest. The academics who work on the project are called “associates” and, at the end of the project, they are often hired by the Company who initiated the project.

So simple it seems, doesn’t it? So you wonder why there are not more examples of successful co-operation between academia and businesses?

Well, actually it’s not that easy! In plain language, it ultimately depends on the individuals involved. Plus, there are a lot of people involved in a typical academic-business partnership (companies, the KTP, universities’ management, individual departments’ head and the actual people involve)… which, in turns, means potential inefficiencies, large time gaps and misunderstanding…and we all know that businesses do not have much time.

So, to summarise: working with universities can be cost-efficient and rewarding; if you bump into the right people, you can actually finance a kick-ass research project for a fraction of what you will otherwise cost if you were to try and develop it in-house.



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