Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund should help demystify commercialisation

The government has placed a high priority on improving university research commercialisation – an important element towards the delivery of the Industrial Strategy, and a part of the roadmap towards the UK spending 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development.

The point of origin for successful commercialisation is clear – the UK’s world class research base; and similarly we know the point of destination – real-world impact on the economy and society.

How does commercialisation work?

The challenge lies in understanding the complex web of expert and technical processes, as well as researcher interactions, which lie between point of origin and destination, with ideas and value heading in both directions. The complexity of that web, picked up in contributions that Wonkhe has already made to the debate on the Knowledge Exchange Framework, poses a number of challenges.

It poses challenges to universities to explain the approaches that they take to engage with wealth creators, and to realise economic impacts – including demonstration that their approaches and procedures do represent global, leading edge practice. It also poses challenges to governments (in the UK as in most developed countries) to craft the appropriate high-level policies to nurture a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem – enabling universities, businesses, and investors to work together to mutual benefit.

Into this web, steps the Research England Connecting Capability Fund (CCF).

The government has provided £100 million for the fund, announced in Autumn 2016, and Research England has been working over the last year to allocate these funds. £85 million is devoted to innovative projects that bring universities together to share commercialisation expertise, and to help deliver the industrial strategy. Four projects were announced by last October, and yesterday we announced the fourteen final CCF award winners.

The eighteen award winners together exemplify the extraordinary range of potential commercial contributions of universities – across regions, industrial and technological sectors, and academic disciplines. Part of the challenge in demystifying university commercialisation is its extraordinary diversity and scale. Possibly only universities have the range to link into every aspect of the UK’s and global economies.

This diversity is exemplified in CCF projects which exploit not only the expertise of university scientists, engineers and medics, but also showcase the commercialisation potential of social scientists, artists, and designers.

Different approaches, different sectors

The 2016 McMillan review of good practice in technology transfer highlighted the need for different approaches to commercialisation for different industrial or technology sectors. The CCF projects add detail and nuance to the general insights from the McMillan review of the need for (sectorally differentiated) commercialisation good practice. Projects seek to exemplify the specifics of commercialisation tailored to the advanced therapies sector, or med-tech, or agri-tech, or the internet of things.

Not only do the CCF projects together explore the range of different disciplinary contributions of universities, but they also seek to plug the right sorts of university expertise into national or regional wealth – creating clusters that can exploit them most effectively. A one size fits all approach cannot work because the strengths of Yorkshire’s industry and entrepreneurs will inevitably be different from those of the South West.

The CCF awards support large-scale collaborations of university technology transfer expertise that can expand our understanding of the university entrepreneurial ecosystem, as described in the McMillan review. We cannot mimic Silicon Valley or Kendall Square, based around Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) universities, but we may discover our own distinctively English equivalents.

The eighteen projects also showcase the range of different components to leading-edge commercialisation practice that are necessary to deliver economic benefit for the UK. Projects will develop and disseminate specific good practices, including in techniques of open innovation, industrial research partnerships, entrepreneurial ecosystem development, raising private investment, and scale-up support.

Finally, the projects exemplify the range of higher education institutions (HEIs) that play an important role in commercialisation. Sixty HEIs are involved in the total portfolio of CCF projects, with exciting (indeed intriguing!) mixes of large and small, research and teaching intensive, and mono- and multi-disciplinary HEIs – working together. This provides important opportunities to share specialist commercialisation expertise across universities, making the overall system more effective and efficient. It also potentially simplifies the landscape for businesses and investors, with tailored gateways to particular types of expertise, or by providing focal points in regions for development of clusters and entrepreneurial – start-up – ecosystems.

The start of the journey

Today’s announcement is just the start of the journey for our CCF projects. All projects will be getting started this month, bringing on board key staff and partners. Research England will be working closely with the projects to understand and promote their important insights about how universities do world-class commercialisation, to go alongside world-class research.

We aim to demystify the web of commercialisation, to enable universities to demonstrate and deliver what works. This should also provide insights national policymakers will find helpful, as they set the right environment and context for university entrepreneurialism and innovation.

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