To help innovative SMEs tap into the UK’s world-class research base EPSRC funding and advice is available for collaborations with our universities, says Alasdair Rose

The government’s long-term vision, set out in the Ten Year Science & Innovation Investment Framework, is to make the UK one of the world’s best places for science, research and innovation. Key to this is the successful exploitation of new ideas, incorporating new technologies, design and best practice.

To achieve economic impact from the knowledge generated and the employment of skilled graduates, we need to strengthen links between business and our world-class research base (universities and public sector research institutes) thus enabling knowledge and people transfer and more innovation in products, services and processes.

The EPSRC is one of eight research councils, with its £650m budget coming from the DTI’s Office of Science and Innovation to support cutting-edge research and high-quality post-graduate training. It works closely with the other research councils through Research Councils UK — a partnership between the eight councils — to improve the economic impact arising from its investments in the science base. The council has also published its proposed strategy for knowledge transfer and economic impact.

Its 10-year vision is for the UK to be equally renowned for knowledge transfer and innovation as it is for research discovery, while maintaining research excellence and quality. Key to the strategy is partnerships. The EPSRC recognises that it cannot achieve knowledge transfer alone, and the exploitation of university research outputs will only be realised by the business sector. The council is forming closer relationships with universities, businesses and intermediate organisations to increase the flow of knowledge and people between them.

SMEs occupy an important place in the UK economy, and the council plans to help them access the best research talent pool, in partnership with others. It also recognises the pressures that face many SMEs: the short-time horizons of the technologies they wish to introduce, their lack of knowledge of which are the best universities and researchers to collaborate with, and a lack of resources for supporting the collaborations.

The EPSRC is helping innovative SMEs to enter collaborations with the universities.

It is developing a regional dimension to its operations. The English Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and their counterparts in the Devolved Administrations (DAs) in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in contact with many of the innovative SMEs in their regions. The council already has links with the RDAs/DAs, and is now building on these and exploring ways of combining its knowledge of the universities and the researchers it funds with those links with SMEs.

The EPSRC met the RDAs/DAs last month to agree areas for co-operation. EPSRC funding for the researchers may be joined up to innovative RDA/DA proof of concept assistance schemes for SMEs, such as SEEDA’s PoCKeT fund and Advantage West Midland’s knowledge transfer vouchers.

The council will continue to give Industrial CASE PhD studentship vouchers to the RDAs/DAs to allocate to SMEs, to place them with university researchers for collaboration on a jointly agreed project. This will include the student spending some time in the SME.

EPSRC also has close relationships with most of the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) , which offer opportunities for businesses, especially SMEs, to become aware of developments in specific areas of technology. The networks promote increased connectivity between businesses and universities.

Many of the major EPSRC-funded research centres in the universities, such as in manufacturing and ICT, conduct research that has huge potential for exploitation. The council’s resources provide opportunities for researchers to form fruitful company collaborations, enabling those companies to access the advanced technologies being developed.

Many SMEs find it attractive to run relatively low-cost, high-value business-specific research projects lasting one to three years, which are carried out by masters or doctoral students funded by the council in Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.

EPSRC has established strategic partnerships with larger, hi-tech companies that wish to co-fund activities in universities that are closely aligned with their business needs. It has partnerships with 16 firms, including BAE Systems, Philips, Proctor & Gamble and SKB, and plans to extend these with others. It hopes there are opportunities for SMEs in the supply chains of these companies to work closely with the partnership company.

So how can SMEs interact more effectively with universities? They can contact a particular university research centre directly, the local RDA or their equivalent in the DAs, one of the KTNs, or EPSRC, with their business requirement.

Or they can contact their major company customers to enquire whether they have, or intend to have, a strategic partnership with the EPSRC.

Dr Alasdair Rose is EPSRC co-ordinator, Better Exploitation