Universities and Business – A Tale of Two Cities?

27 Jun 2014               

A Tale of Two Cities (source: Wikipedia, public domain)

I recently found the time to re-read one of my favourite books, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (As an aside, it was only stumbling across an old copy that had been gathering dust for decades in my parents’ loft that prompted me to revisit it. In the same way as I only find myself listening to an album because the CD caught my eye on the shelf, I can’t help but feel a little sad that the shift to digital will see these serendipitous moments dwindle in number over time).

London and Paris

The novel is set during the years leading up to and including the French revolution, and charts the changing fortunes of London and Paris through the eyes of a cast of characters, both French and English. Though not without its share of hard-drinkers and petty crooks, the London of the time emerges as a place of safety and stability. In contrast, the moral and economic bankruptcy of the aristocracy in Paris leads to the storming of the Bastille, mob rule and the guillotine. By the middle of the book the main characters seem safely ensconced in ‘quiet lodgings’ in a ‘quiet street-corner’ of London, oblivious to the events taking place across the channel in France. Yet, as Dickens notes repeatedly, a peculiar characteristic of this quiet corner is that it is a ‘wonderful place for echoes’. It ‘resounded with the echoes of footsteps coming and going, yet not a footstep was there.’ The implication, that events in the wider world cannot be evaded for ever, is clear. It therefore comes as little surprise when circumstances conspire to force the main characters to leave the safety of London, and return to a Paris gripped in the maelstrom of the French revolution. I won’t spoil the ending for those who are yet to read it, but it is in the bloody streets of Paris, not the quiet corners of London, that two of the book’s main protagonists find a meaning and purpose to their lives that had hitherto eluded them.

Universities and business

It struck me in reading the book how much the worlds of academia and industry can seem to parallel these opposing cities of Dickens’ imagination. As people in London cast fearful glances across the channel lest the seeds of revolution should spread to England, so academics fear an insidious spread of metrics, managerialism and instrumentalism from our companies into our universities. We don’t have to look far to find modern-day examples of the aristocratic ‘Monseigneurs’ of Paris and the over-taxed workers who fund their lavish lifestyles and bail out their excesses (some would argue they can be found in universities as well as in industry, of course). And whether it is between London and Paris, or universities and business, those moving from one world to another are frequently viewed with suspicion, and struggle to adapt to differing social and cultural norms.

It would also seem that the days when academics could remain ensconced in the ‘quiet lodgings’ of a university are receding fast. The footsteps of the wider world now echo louder and louder in our academic institutions, and the pressures to collaborate, to engage and to deliver impact are all conspiring to force researchers out of the safety of their offices and laboratories.

A trend with a long history

What then, should we make of this growing pressure for universities and business to work together? Perhaps firstly we should acknowledge that this is by no means a recent phenomenon. As Dickens’ famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities reminds us (’It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’), we all have a tendency towards hyperbole in one direction or another, when the truth usually lies somewhere in between. Governments urging universities to do more to contribute to society and the economy are nothing new.

Nevertheless, the impact and engagement agenda is being pursued with particular vigour at the moment, and brings with it a risk that the deep cultural differences between universities and business are overlooked. These differences were brought into sharp relief in a recent article in Research Policy by Andrew J. Nelson “From the ivory tower to the start-up garage” (not available in open access form, I’m afraid). He outlines how attempts to exploit a promising technology (waveguide physical modelling) within Stanford University rapidly faltered. Only once the technology was licensed to a start-up company, with the goals of exploitation and maximising the financial return rather than exploration and sharing of ideas, did the commercialisation process become a success.

While some might take this as an indictment of the university environment, I would suggest otherwise. Expecting individuals to behave in a university exactly as one would in a business (or vice versa), is not just a case of ignoring social niceties, but represents a failure to appreciate the different missions and purposes of each organisation.

Grounds for optimism

In 2006, a joint project of the National Council of University Research Administrators and the Industrial Research Institute in the United States recognised exactly this fact. They suggested there should be three guiding principles for university-industry endeavours:

  1. A successful university-industry collaboration should support the mission of each partner. Any effort in conflict with the mission of either partner will ultimately fail.
  2. Institutional practices and national resources should focus on fostering appropriate long-term partnerships between universities and industry.
  3. Universities and industry should focus on maximizing value resulting from collaborations by streamlining negotiations and measuring results.

These are not always easy to achieve, but I think the principles remain a good yardstick for judging the likely success of any collaboration. By way of example, I had the privilege last week of attending the opening of the new Romax Technology Centre on the University of Nottingham’s Innovation Park, which exemplifies the exciting opportunities that can arise where universities and businesses work together.

Image used by permission of the copyright holder

Image used by permission of the copyright holder

I played a small part in getting the project off the ground within the University, but it would not be breaking any confidences to say that the gleaming new building unveiled last week had a long and occasionally painful gestation period. Both parties initially viewed the opportunity with a degree of trepidation. For the University, the building represented a significant financial and reputational commitment to a successful but nevertheless relatively small company. For the company, Romax Technology, committing to a new building of this size depended on a continued trajectory of growth that was difficult to forecast with certainty. Yet fundamentally the development fitted with the missions of both partners, and they perceived genuine value in a long-term partnership. This, plus senior management support on both sides, meant that the difficult negotiations involved ultimately resulted in a win-win outcome for both parties.

A long way to go

I have also been spending a lot of time recently at the Nottingham Clean Technology Centre. Though located very close to the University of Nottingham Innovation Park, it is a private venture that aims to provide a home for entrepreneurs, start-ups and small companies developing products or businesses relating to all aspects of clean technologies. As with Romax, perhaps the key ingredient in the centre’s success is time. The Centre’s Chairman, Bob Pynegar, described it to me as a flywheel, requiring a lot of energy and effort to be put into it before it develops a momentum of its own. Once that momentum is achieved, though, it becomes almost self-sustaining. With 50 businesses now located there, the Clean Tech Centre is well on its way to this point, and looking to emulate another successful Nottingham incubator in the form of BioCity (whose CEO, Glenn Crocker, gave an excellent presentation last week on the challenges and opportunities involved in attracting investment to such initiatives outside of London and the South East).

Image used by permission of the copyright holder

That said, time is perhaps also the reason why it can be particularly difficult for universities to effectively engage with start-up and micro-businesses. When I talk with some of the small business owners at the Clean Tech centre it is a salutary reminder of how inaccessible universities often appear from the outside. Many of those I speak to still struggle to know how to engage with a university, and (perhaps more worryingly) others had found timescales an insurmountable obstacle. As one business owner described it, ‘The academic was talking about publishing a journal article in three years’ time, and I’m just trying to make sure I can pay the mortgage in three months.’

Lessons from history

Today people can travel between London and Paris in two hours, and London is France’s 6th biggest city by population. Britain and France haven’t felt the need to go to war for nearly two centuries, and the two countries were even contemplating sharing an aircraft carrier recently. Some of our greatest engineering achievements (Concorde, the Channel Tunnel) have come from the two nations working together. As with university-industry relations, all this has taken time and was only achieved as the result of numerous complex and delicate negotiations. Yet none of this has required the two cities, London and Paris, to renounce their unique cultures and identities.

Questions continue to be asked about the role of universities and small businesses in supporting growth (eg in a recent Demos article on “The Myth of the Science Park Economy“), but these are exciting times for both. Organisations like the National Centre for Universities and Business are working hard to develop closer links, and I personally remain optimistic that universities and businesses can work effectively together without compromising their different missions and cultures.

A Tale of Two Cities closes with the famous line ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done’.  What better inspiration could there be for universities and businesses to work together?

Postscript: For any UK-based research managers interested in exploring this topic further, I’ll be running an ARMA workshop on the subject of university-business collaborations (in London, naturally) on 1 October 2014.  I’ll be joined by Joe Marshall, COO and Director of Strategy at NCUB , plus speakers from Loughborough University and JRI Orthopaedics.  Bookings open on 21 July, watch this space for more details.