Shatter the glass ceiling on your company’s ability to innovate through effective business-university collaborations

Student and business collaborators working together
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Dayna Arnold, Project Manager at Zest Consult, a leading digital technology consultancy, discusses the benefits of business-university collaborations to overcome barriers and boost their innovation capabilities

Innovation is critical for businesses to keep up with the fluidity of the marketplace. These technological advances enable businesses to remain relevant and promote sustainability. Innovative companies are rewarded for being ready for the future and with increased consumer demand.

“Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds” -Alexander Graham Bell

Many businesses recognize that to successfully innovate they cannot exclusively rely on their internal Research and Development (R&D). Working with external partners allows them to access different sources of knowledge and save R&D costs. This is why business-university collaborations can be so useful.

Universities are among the external partners that offer high promise since they allow access to an enormous global pool of talent and skills. The business-university collaboration incorporates the enormous potential for promoting innovation. Companies may fund/co-fund postdoctoral researchers studying difficult scientific problems or new technologies of interest.

A national focus on productivity

Nationally, there is a focus on productivity and a drive to support innovation. The Government is encouraging business-university collaborations to develop new solutions to problems. Businesses and universities benefit from joint grants awarded for innovation. Taxpayers get more innovative research at a fraction of the cost of funding research exclusively with government grants.

For example, our team at Zest successfully led and completed an Innovate UK-funded research project in collaboration with the University of West England (UWE) and construction company Costain to develop a new technique for training machine learning models in the detection of objects and events in CCTV images.

Our Zest team combined our considerable expertise in CCTV video and project management with UWE’s expertise in analytics to develop new CCTV Video analytics for health/safety, security, and productivity use-cases that are cutting-edge techniques in AI, far less expensive, much quicker and more robust video analytic machine learning models than currently exist in the market.

What are the advantages of business-university collaborations for business?

An advantage of collaborating with UWE for our innovation project was that Zest could gain access to UWE’s state-of-the-art laboratory for computer vision system development. Additionally, universities have a wealth of knowledge and aptitude, from world-class academic researchers to students at a fraction of the cost.
Certification programs offered through business-university collaborations are another advantage. Employees interested in pursuing programs that will help them refresh their skills or give them a competitive edge can take advantage of certification programs while providing opportunities for organizations to upskill employees more efficiently.

Business-university collaborations advantages for universities

Universities worldwide work with established businesses in a myriad of ways, including collaborative research/development, student internship placements, and graduate employment.

Coventry University, for example, formed an innovative business partnership with Unipart, a UK-owned multi-national company operating across the automotive, oil and gas, aerospace, and rail sectors. This business-university collaboration created the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME).

What are the potential challenges of collaborating?

The open nature of academic science sometimes conflicts with companies need to protect technologies they use involving the intellectual property structures of university administration – patent offices, technology transfer offices, etc.- which could potentially create barriers to effective business-university collaborations. A focus on gaining IP rights and revenues may take some time to enter into agreements within these partnerships. Further, universities could attempt to commercialize technology too early, spending time trying to identify a potential licensee rather than advancing the technology to the point where it is ready to move forward.

You have to combine both things: invention and innovation focus, plus the company that can commercialize things and get them to people. – Larry Page

Removing IP from the equation could greatly improve the circulation of knowledge to firms and other researchers who can make the best use of it. Removing barriers related to IP and other patent-related issues encourages business collaboration by getting the research needed for exploitation into their hands without delay and also facilitates moving students and fellows between the university and the firm, allowing universities to freely publish their findings without restriction.

Additionally, while academic research focuses on long-term challenges and thus may move more slowly, industrial R&D is driven by time-sensitive product development projects and day-to-day problem-solving. As a result, companies can sometimes find universities slow in delivery. Zest has had an opportunity to forge a long-term relationship between our business and UWE. This afforded us the opportunity to work on multiple projects together to better align our timetables, making them more efficient and feasible, thus, getting solutions to market faster, which benefits consumers and, ultimately, the world.

“Alone, we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

According to Dr. Hakeem Owolabi, a UWE-Bristol Associate Professor specialising in Project Analytics, “Business-University collaboration offers the best of both worlds to academics and businesses in a lot of ways. For universities, such collaborations provide opportunities to deliver research with real and far-reaching impacts on policy, practice, knowledge, and society at large. Organisations are able to leverage research outcomes to exploit new markets, create new business opportunities and gain competitive advantage. Oftentimes, new innovation can be quite risky and costly; and businesses would rather prioritise their limited resources, but such collaborations with universities lower the cost of the expertise needed to explore new innovative ideas”.

Universities see their role extending beyond teaching and pure research to gaining real-world and hands-on experiences as they shift their focus to how their research can help solve real-world problems, and for that, they often need the input of businesses, charities, or public sector organisations.

The most productive partnerships between companies and universities take shape when all involved find the right balance between their core product development goals, organizational values, priorities, and technical and business competencies.

While universities and businesses enjoy a symbiotic relationship, society also benefits from a trained workforce answering today’s most pressing challenges and creating technology to improve lives. Students experience real-world situations and receive training in highly skilled industrial applications, which positively impacts the economy by creating a workforce that is relevant to those areas of national and industrial interest which benefits the world, overall.

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Zest Consult Ltd
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