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Britain’s strength as an engineering nation has waxed and waned over the years; there’s no doubt about it. But the strength of our research and development base, in both engineering and science, has never been in doubt. The UK punches above its weight, and British-trained researchers are in demand all over the world. But does the country make the most of this expertise? A recent report from Cambridge University suggests that policymakers have been getting it wrong for decades.

The strength of UK research sometimes creates as many worries as it does plaudits: poor levels of pay in the UK leading to ‘brain drains’, for example. One major concern has been a perceived weakness in commercialising technologies, and successive governments have searched for a winning formula, a way to make sure that researchers contribute to industry in the most effective way, for decades.

In the report from the UK Innovation Research Centre, authors David Connell and Jocelyn Probert argue that big, multi-partner research collaborations, such as those fostered by the Technology Strategy Board, the EPSRC and the European Union, aren’t the best way to get research into the commercial stream. In fact, they say, it’s sometimes best not to involve the universities at all. It’s small technology-focused companies which are often the best source of commercial ideas, they say, and these are neglected.

The argument is that SMEs, particularly university spin-outs, should undertake commercial R&D contracts from larger companies, focused on solving customer problems and developing new products. This generates business for the companies, leading to more jobs for technology graduates in a commercial environment (and hopefully boosting rates of pay); it also, they say, tends to create more ideas for proprietary products and spurs the creation of further start-ups to develop and commercialise them. This is the approach used around Cambridge, and the success of that region speaks for itself, they argue.

Very interesting stuff, especially for The Engineer and its readers. Our annual awards has recognised and celebrated collaboration between universities and industry for the past three years, and we’ve looked at many projects where this approach has led to valuable commercial products. But this year, we’re expanding the awards to cover all kinds of collaboration, including those between small and large companies. It’ll be fascinating to see whether Connell and Probert’s conclusions are reflected in the award entries.

In the meantime, we’re still no closer to finding an ideal solution for getting the most out of our research base. Should we follow Germany’s example, where the Fraunhofer Institutes coordinate and foster collaboration between industry and academia on projects with long lead-times? Does the US provide a better template, with a network of national laboratories and focused, industry-led R&D? Or is our emerging culture of entrepreneurship already laying the foundations for a stronger commercial technology base? As ever, we’re very keen to hear your thoughts. And please take a moment to vote in our online poll

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor

Readers' comments (10)

  • I have to agree with the thread of the argument, based on my 20 years experience as an engineer working at the innovation coal-face. The UK certainly has a strong R&D capability and funding will certainly assist commercialisation. However, funding research at any level has always been a blunt instrument, sometimes effective sometimes a waste. But, whilst HEI and TSB funding rise to speed up the 'technology push' conveyor belt no attention is being given to the market-pull forces of innovation that will, to a large degree, determine how technology innovation is delivered. In today's world a one dimensional approach does not work and our effectiveness at commercialising research can only improve with a more joined-up approach unifying technology and user-centric issues.

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  • In the 45 years that I've been in engineering it has changed considerably in many aspects. The "Fred Dibnah" age in which everything was made using the skill of the craftsman has been overtaken by by CNC machinery which leans towards the educated programmer. Only the fitter's roll remains virtually unchanged but his necessity is diminished.
    We should define precisely what type of engineers we need to produce for our country, not just for now but for the future. Universities might be able to help us with both if they research this subject and engineering firms offer apprenticeships accordingly.
    Engineers have always been undervalued too and this should change.

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  • A major problem in our universities is the focus on Research rather than
    Development and Papers rather than Patents. They should focus more on providing industry with good graduates who have the skills to challenge the status quo and who implicitly use the principles of science in a practical way. Let's back away from "blue sky" research until we've earned the money to pay for it. Bring back the Polytechnic?

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  • Just after the war Britain decided it needed industrially focussed research associations whose job was to listen to their members identify their needs for technology development and provide industrially robust research advances (the difficult part is always the implementation).
    Many of these organisations were privatised by the conservative government of 89. Some RA's have survived and prospered some as true RA's able to receive EPSRC and other funding due to their charity status. Others have struggled, been bought out or gone under due to the cost of capital equipment, industry disappearing overseas and the burden of massive pension liabilities.

    The errors of judgement made by government are:

    1) Heavy funding of universities especially for capital equipment when there are not the staff to use it and it sits idle
    2) Trying to get universities into servicing industry which does not sit well with the requirement to educate graduates and publish research. Research tends to operate on the 3-10 year timescale. Industry tends to need instant application of existing knowledge or something useful inside 3 years.
    3) Researchers with practical on plant industrial experience are limited.
    4) The massively high failure rate of spin outs indicates a good idea is not always saleable if the market pull is not there and can easily be ahead of its time.
    5) Many of the industrial research initiatives are part RDA funded and as such local rather than truly national in organisation leading to significant duplication.
    6) A commercial organisation like a privatised RTO has to make commercial decisions as regards space and maintaining expensive capital plant that may be essential to development of a product but is only used 1 or 2 times a year. Due to infrequent use these installations do not provide a commercial return and government support is not available to maintain them as is the case in the French and German models. We have scrapped plant that would cost millions to replace. This includes a deep water facility built 20 years ago suitable for tidal power testing which we could not raise support to refurbish.

    When we do get enquiries for testing we frequently have to send the enquirer to a French CNRS or German Fraunhoffer that still has the test rigs.

    A commercially focussed part funded RA/Fraunhoffer/CNRS model where industrial income has to be earned for survival provides a nexus at which relevant technology needs and developments, technical contacts, and enquiries for assistance etc. can be responded to on a realistic time scale.

    The individual University based model where many institutes are offering the same services requires far more connections with industry to be made and inculcates a degree of uncertainty in the enquirer. The model was there we seem to have thrown chunks of it away.

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  • We need Banks with roots in the community to fund small scale activities.
    We also need management which takes a longer term view and has really considered long term what happens if everything is offshored.
    I unfortunately have no confidence anything will change and fully expect the total collapse of the UK economy with a considerable amount of dislocation.
    After all it won't affect the politicians who I have no doubt have allready got billets assigned in Brussels.

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  • Research (that is real research, where you pay some clever people to work together on a problem and see what happens) is hard to fund, because by definition its outcomes cannot be determined a priori and you need to be able to tell who the clever people are. As a result, many companies don't do research, they do development. This is a shame, because most true breakthroughs come about through research (particularly the 'blue sky research' that engineers sometimes seem irrationally allergic to), not development. Funding spinouts is easier in this respect, because it's 'better the devil you know'.
    The success of the Cambridge region (in my opinion) is maintaining an entrepreneurial cluster which draws on university products (research, students) and develops them to the benefit of both. However, the university generally does the research, and the spin-outs generally do the development. The report suggests doing this the other way round. This is much harder, because of the attitude of industry (as per C. Smith above) toward research. Relationships can get very unstable very quickly and it can end up with the company asking for development work (which their project managers can understand) not research.

    Also, C. Smith claims that patents are more important than papers. If you are evaluating cutting edge science or engineering, how can you tell the quality of the work without peer-reviewed journals? You can patent any old rubbish. Convincing three anonymous reviewers skilled in your field is much harder and far more worthwhile.

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  • I have been an engineer since 1969 and have seen the demise of the aircraft industry along with most others, I spent 16 years in R&D for sat com, radar systems etc and now teach to BSc Hons level in a college not too far from a famous Hampshire airport.
    Smaller R&D Companies are many times more efficient than larger organisations in my experience. We strive to teach design from both analytical and practical perspectives. It has been difficult to keep practical equipment due to current regulations in this country which do not encourage these facilities. Many of our starting students have not been allowed to use a stapler at school for instance.
    We however teach all types of welding, fabrication, conventional machining, conversational cnc manufacturing, ISO Fanuc Industrial cnc manufacturing, inspection techniques, Sketch design, 2D CAD Drawing, Surface modelling, Solid modelling, FEA/FEM. Cfd, CAM..... The list goes on and matched with the analytical subjects to round the experience. The thing that worries me is that the people teaching these skills are not getting any younger and most organisations are not providing this grounding.

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  • The main problem seems to be political, and the return on investments over a short period of time.
    Government could invest relatively small fixed sums over fixed periods, this will inspire confidence and bring in other private and public capital. Profits could then be ploughed back to create a self sustaining supply of funding for a self perpetuating, financially independent pot of money for future investment. This would also offset any financial losses from funding which does not yield results, but this would require ring fencing to stop unscrupulous governments from diverting it elsewhere to politically motivated pet projects.

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  • Since the USA was mentioned as part of the original article, I will throw my comments into the discussion.

    There are a number of issues that need to be addressed in any discussion about fostering innovation. They are posted in no particular order.

    1. How do you ensure that the individuals responsible for innovation are properly compensated for their time, efforts and creativity?

    2. How do you foster a sense of collaboration without at the same time eliminating the ability for those responsible for being adequately rewarded for their contributions to the solution?

    3. What are the important directions that society and thus research and development need to focus for maximum benefit to all?

    4. Who should be rewarded more for success as the result of an innovation or new discovery? Is it the inventors or the investors who took the financial risks to fund the efforts?

    The big challenge comes from situation that the answers to these questions may be mutually exclusive.

    How do you resolve those conflicts?

    I don't have the answers for society as a whole, I only have them for what personally work for me.

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  • As someone who has invested in several UK technology companies, and has the scars to prove it, I think there IS a problem with commercialising good ideas.

    In the UK we seem to lack the infrastructure or organisational skills to nurture developments to commercial level. In part I think that the easy route provided by AIM means early backers can shift the required development cost and period to a gullible market who think in short time spans and simply do not have the technical nous to realise what is required.

    I have been to see City types twice and I have not been impressed with the attitude which has been very much how fast a buck can I make and no I don't want to understand the detail.

    I have also been slightly depressed by some company Directors who have failed to understand the marketplace and missed opportunities. Perhaps we have too much talent going to parasitic jobs in the City : (

    Incidentally patent applications are not necessarily an indicator of good commercial ideas, I have been told that in the US 95% of patents are registered to obstruct other research or are the work of patent trolls. As I routinely look at patent applications monthly from a variety of companies in a couple of areas I can well believe that.

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