Working with academics: what businesses need to know

Businesses that have not previously collaborated with universities often do not know what to expect when they start working with academics. 

Collaborations between businesses and universities can yield exciting results. However, the prospect of working with an academic institution for the first time can be daunting. How should you approach a partnership like this to ensure you get the most out of it?

There should be mutual benefits 

The best collaboration between a university and a business will deliver mutual benefits. For example, the business may develop a new product while the academic can adapt his or her research into solutions that are genuinely relevant and beneficial.

When they approach a university, businesses are generally looking for access to brilliant minds, creativity and different ways of thinking. They sometimes want a partner to share their risk or independent academic validation for a new product. Many are also keen to get their hands on state of the art equipment and facilities that will benefit their latest developments.

Academics welcome the opportunity to see their knowledge and insights materialise into an innovative new product or process, solutions to real problems. They may also want to be able to use the collaboration in teaching to help get students ready for the world of industry especially where innovation is required.

The best partnerships are always the ones that deliver benefits to both parties. Sometimes the first stage is to find that equilibrium. The very nature of a university is that they can provide that objectivity, enabling both sides to be as honest and open as possible about what they hope to get out of it.

Your agendas may be closer than you think

When companies approach the University’s Enterprise Solutions team for the first time, they are sometimes surprised to discover the appetite from academics to work with commercial organisations like theirs. Increasingly, academics need to demonstrate the impact of their research. Collaborating with businesses to develop innovative new products or processes can be the ideal way of generating real world benefits from academic knowledge and insights. Academics are not only interested in the theoretical aspects of the project – you may well find they care deeply about the difference it will make to the business and the wider public.

You might get a reality check – in a good way

When businesses share their idea with an academic they sometimes get a surprising response. One of the benefits academics can bring to a collaboration is the depth and breadth of their knowledge on a particular topic. The academic should be able to give the business access to a wealth of research – including information they did not previously know existed.

Having insights from around the world can help them put the business’ idea into a global context. This sometimes means the company discovers their idea is not quite as innovative as they’d thought. While this can be painful, it is of course incredibly useful to have this insight at the earliest possible stage. This allows the businesses to adapt much quicker, save valuable investment and time while enabling them to take their project into a different direction once they’ve had these insights.

Be prepared to have your misconceptions challenged

When they approach our Enterprise Solutions team, it is sometimes clear that bringing together the brilliant minds of academic experts with the commercial day-to-day insights of the business can lead to something more than the sum of the parts. Any nervousness or trepidation around the collaboration very quickly goes as the added value from both parties becomes obvious.

We are always pleased when businesses have their assumptions challenged. While academics do generally have a different approach – and that is often precisely what businesses are looking for – they can often surprise partners with the way they operate. Being clear about your expectations right from the start is always the best approach.

It could just be the beginning

Most companies that approach Enterprise Solutions are looking for a very specific outcome but these collaborations have a habit of growing and evolving. For example, some of the companies that have made use of Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre have then gone on to take part in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University, undertaken Degree Apprenticeships or accessed our Innovation Centres.

So, keep the short term objectives in mind but be prepared for that initial collaboration to lead to other – potentially bigger – things.

To find out how your business could work with the University of Plymouth, contact Enterprise Solutions: 0800 052 5600 or enterprisesolutions@plymouth.ac.uk

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