The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

 More than ever, there is a critical need to bring together thinkers from the academic world, doers in industry, and funders in government

More than ever, there is a critical need to bring together thinkers from the academic world, doers in industry, and funders in government

Head of Academic Engagement Beata Szoboszlai looks at why tackling barriers to university and commercial collaboration through academic engagement will increase spin-outs and help the UK lead in Intelligent Mobility

One of the Transport Systems Catapult’s (TSC) five strategic areas of focus, academic engagement is critical to the UK leading in Intelligent Mobility (IM) research and innovation.

As connectors of the commercial and entrepreneurial space with research and development, the TSC brings together cutting edge innovation and discovery, supports R&D investment and bridges the work of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Ultimately, it helps spend taxpayer money more wisely, create new jobs, growth and social wellbeing.

With the advent of the UKRI in April, where Innovate UK and Research Councils UK worlds merge, it has become clear that different stakeholders and collaborators must engage with each other for funding opportunities. Every penny from grants counts. No longer can stakeholders in the sector go over old ground or afford to start from scratch.

Finding scope to elevate progress as quickly as possible is the key to successful funding and advancement. More than ever, there is a critical need to bring together thinkers from the academic world, doers in industry, and funders in government – this is where linkers such as the Catapults come in. As integrators and a key link between the commercial and R&D spaces, the TSC can propel and excel new developments.

The market opportunity

As our CEO Paul Campion points out in another post, the transport market is full of what economists call ‘market failures’ – for example, where organisations in the transport network are not collaborating. As Campion writes, “When this happens, costs and benefits are not aligned, information does not flow and there are insufficient incentives for leaders in the industry to take up innovations from universities and from other industries. To put it another way, without help the market will not deliver the sort of innovations that travellers and businesses want.”

With so many stakeholders in our IM ecosystem, we could do more to accelerate learning and services. There are many universities, policymakers, businesses, and third sector organisations, coupled with differing and often competing metrics, data and determinates of success.

What if we had a data map for this knowledge, our stakeholders and decision-making? One that could help businesses decide who to work with in the research and knowledge fields, and show universities where to send students for placements, as well as what the strengths of each university are? Most of this information is available – it’s not yet accessible through a single source. TSC is working to create an academic capability map, to provide this service, with the beta version expected to become available in September. So while this will be soon adopted, it requires a shift in behavioural and mental approach first.

The importance of changing behaviours

With the introduction of frameworks such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Research Excellence Framework (REF), the UK has observed an increased focus in teaching quality and student outcomes, and funding for excellence in science.

Now though, the UK Government’s Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) demands more interaction. The KEF could bring more support for knowledge exchange, and more investment in technology transfer and collaboration. This means adopting and encouraging new behaviours to spur progress.

So what kinds of behaviours should the KEF encourage? Ideally, the KEF will influence the whole Catapult family, to share and align KPIs. These behaviours are about the collective gain for the UK:

  1. Finding win-win approaches
  2. Synergy, instead of competition
  3. Understanding each stakeholder’s position

With each member of the Catapult Network managing partners from universities, the KEF presents a great opportunity to create an environment based on symbiotic relationships between stakeholders. This interaction is key to achieving the Government’s 2.4% increase in R&D investment.

Mariana Mazzucato, based at UCL, has reinforced this thinking with her book about relationship symbiosis, The Entrepreneurial State. Mazzucato talks about the importance of symbiotic innovation ecosystems between public and private sectors, and the importance of links between and within the actors, not just between universities and businesses but also within universities, between faculties and departments.

Leading the change

While we have accomplished much over the past five years with top universities, there is much more to do. Our valuable work sees university stakeholders coming back to the TSC, because of our deep, sector specific knowledge, our neutral position, and our ability to act as an independent collaboration hub. And because we are unique in the transport arena, we are ideally placed to lead this behavioural change with bold, new moves.

To explore assets and insight that will progress projects and new services, the Academic Engagement team at the TSC are running programmes with an academic capability map. This map can act as a critical source of data when forming partnerships and collaborative projects. However, the right collaborative behaviours must accompany this work for it to succeed, particularly multidisciplinary teams working across the breath of industry and academia. This means departing from old thinking – of both academics and commercial enterprise.

The TSC’s Deep Academic Alliances will deliver this to create a multi-disciplinary approach through a one-stop-shop for the development of new products and services. With a pilot in two universities, the University of Nottingham and the University of Leeds, the TSC aims to help develop a single entity approach. This means a shared goal, with the same meaning and close work together for a powerful outcome. By coaching, mentoring and growing partnerships, the TSC wants to create a blueprint that helps other projects, create spinouts and start ups. All of this can come from universities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and a SME network that encourages each other to reach out and think outside of the regular box.

The sector requires deep knowledge from an integrator to move quickly. With the knowledge, roadmaps to solutions, and the network that can connect brilliant minds with commercially agile stakeholders, the TSC can overcome challenges with long-term, sustainable solutions.

If you are working in transport at a university and want to get involved send us your details here.

Find out more about our recent Academic Engagement activities in our latest newsletter.


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