By Dr Mattia Fosci
Everyone loves this time of the year: the days are long, the light is brighter and conference season is in full swing. Earlier this month it was my lucky turn to join one of our clients – PraxisUnico – at this year’s University-Industry Interaction Conference (also known as UIIN) in Amsterdam.
As the title makes abundantly clear, the conference explored many aspects of the ever-stronger, but at times challenging, relationship between universities and non-academic partners. The 2.5-day conference had an intense programme of workshops and presentations covering a wide range of issues, from intellectual property issues to student entrepreneurship. While most came from Europe, the conference saw participants from North America, Thailand, Australia, Costa Rica, Japan and many other exotic places.
As I wind down from what were very intense days, I am left with a few thoughts:
- In today’s knowledge economy, strengthening links between industry and academia seems to be climbing the political agenda of countries of all size and shapes
- There is an increasing understanding of the need to establish and maintain relationships between two very different worlds, and that this should not be left entirely to the researchers
- The challenges universities face when establishing and managing these relationships are in part due to internal management problems, but perhaps in larger part due to a ‘clash of two cultures’ that need time to understand, and adjust to, each other
- Many of the proposed solutions come down to one key concept: creating an ‘ecosystem’ (both a physical space and a metaphorical place) where different world-visions can cohabit and entrepreneurial ideas can grow
- While not a million miles ahead, the UK is generally doing well on these issues compared to other countries.
But there was another reason for Research Consulting to be at the UIIN conference other than to learn more about these issues and enjoy the excellent food. Our client PraxisUnico just published a report which we prepared earlier this year, and we joined PraxisUnico staff to present a poster with some of the key report findings. (I might be biased, but it seems to me that our poster was the most photographed of the event…take a look below to see why).
The report, called “Knowledge Exchange & Commercialisation: The State of the Profession in UK Higher Education”, is available here. It is the first attempt to paint a comprehensive picture of all the professionals working in technology transfer offices, knowledge exchange, partnerships and variety of other support roles within UK HEIs. Some of the key findings are:
- There are now around 4,000 FTE KEC professionals in the UK, from just a few dozen individuals no longer than 20 years ago
- KEC professionals spend most of their time facilitating research exploitation, knowledge sharing and public engagement – and it is therefore not surprising that soft skills such as relationship management and networking are amongst the most valuable in the profession
- Most KEC professionals combine research and business experience, which allows them to ‘speak both languages’ and act as a bridge between these two very diverse communities
- Universities have many reasons to pursue KEC activities: while financial income is still the main measure of success, more and more emphasis is being placed on non-financial measures such as the number of strategic partnership and contribution to impact.
Having the opportunity to discuss these findings with an international audience alongside PraxisUnico was an enriching experience. We saw how some countries are still grappling with the old tech transfer model, while others focus on the overall value of university-industry collaborations, encompassing the non-financial benefits for universities, students and the society. And yet we could also see how, despite the different approaches, many countries are increasingly linking their economic development with their ability to innovate – and how they regard Universities as an untapped growth engine. In this context, it was clear that the organisational and cultural challenges UK-based KEC professionals (and HEIs) are facing are very much universal. And for some reason, that is quite a reassuring thought.