Linking research with innovation

The Iain Gray Blog

The chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board explains how Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) represent a good deal for all involved

In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to the importance of bringing scientific research and technological innovation closer together.

It was a clear recognition of the fact that while businesses often have great ideas for innovation, a lack of knowledge around how to access the UK’s world-leading academic research base is sometimes the main obstacle in overcoming the technological challenges that would to enable those innovations to make it through to full commercialisation.

The technological challenge may be a very specific issue that can be resolved quite quickly. In that case, applying for one of our Innovation Vouchers, which gives businesses access to a short period of academic consultancy, may fit the bill. Often though, longer term development work may be necessary and here, the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) comes into its own.

”The university gets to apply the fruits of its research to the real world of commerce, the business gets access to leading edge science – and the graduate gets invaluable workplace experience – and often a job at the end

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships offer businesses the opportunity to work in partnership with an academic institution to obtain knowledge and expertise, to which they currently have no access, to address their business challenges and embed sustainable innovation. Varying between six months and three years in length – depending on the needs of the business, the knowledge sought is embedded into the company through a project or projects undertaken by a recently qualified person (known as the ‘KTP associate’)  recruited specifically to work on that project.

By placing a recent graduate into the company in this way, as a link between the business and a partner research institution such as a university, everyone benefits. The university gets to apply the fruits of its research to the real world of commerce, the business gets access to leading edge science – and the graduate gets invaluable workplace experience – and often a job at the end of the project. (Around 75 per cent of graduates are offered permanent roles at the end of their KTP placements).

KTP winners
The team from Bullivant Taranto and Queens University Belfast was named winner for Engineering Excellence at last year’s KTP Awards

I was privileged to take part in an event at the beginning of December which celebrated this very effective way of bringing academic researchers and innovative businesses together – and producing great results for UK plc. Our annual Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) awards celebrated the very best of these collaborations and are a good example of what the Government is talking about when it stresses the need for the UK to exploit its research base in order to develop world-leading innovation. Attended by Mathew Hancock, Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise (who was not just enthusiastic, but surprisingly knowledgeable about KTPs) the event was a tremendously encouraging showcase of the commercial benefits of academic/business collaboration. 

Take the KTP between one of Europe’s leading concrete engineering companies, Bullivant Taranto and Queens University Belfast, which won both the overall ‘Engineering Excellence’ award at the ceremony and the award for ‘Best Partnership’.  This KTP was funded by the Technology Strategy Board & Invest NI. The results were spectacular, resulting in the development of new, patented technologies, increased market share, entrance into new markets in the UK and Ireland and exceeding their profit forecasts by 500 per cent – all within a year of the KTP being completed. There were also sustainability benefits, with energy reduction and production cost reductions of 30 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.

In a modest way, the 75 per cent retention rate for ‘KTP associates’ also plays a role in establishing a route into careers in engineering. The awards recognise this fact through its ‘Business leaders of Tomorrow awards’, one of which was won by Dr Orla Kelly, a design engineer at East Sussex-based company Photek, for her work designing novel ion optics for velocity map imaging (VMI) spectrometers. Part of a KTP carried out in partnership with Bristol University, Orla’s work has created opportunities for revenue streams in new markets, strengthening the position of Photek in related technology sectors.

The Government’s focus on the need “to promote innovation to make the most of the UK’s science base” is right. Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are an excellent way of doing so.