Skills exchange

Collaborations with universities are helping companies stay ahead of the game with cutting-edge research and specialist technology. Andrew Lee reports

A growing number of companies are working with universities to access the expertise and skills they need to stay at the forefront of innovation, according to new research from manufacturing industry body EEF.

Results from the organisation’s first Innovation Monitor survey suggest that businesses are increasingly successful in their efforts to collaborate with external partners.

The research found that half of companies are working with universities in areas such as accessing specialist technology and joint projects and R&D initiatives. Most reported no problems in finding the right academic partner and managing the cost of the relationship.

Steve Radley, chief economist at EEF, said ‘real progress’ had been made in bringing businesses and the academic sector together.

‘But getting these relationships off the ground is not straight- forward,’ added Radley. ‘Widening the scope of some existing and successful schemes would offer further support for small companies trying to launch a collaborative partnership.’

EEF called for the expansion of government initiatives such as the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and innovation vouchers as a way of boosting the number of companies working with universities.

Other recommendations include providing incentives for public sector procurement departments to invest in innovative products and services and setting up a national proof of concept scheme to help companies raise finance for the commercialisation of new ideas.

The value of long-standing industry-academic partnerships was underlined by last week’s announcement from automotive technology group Ricardo that it will renew its research contract with the University of Brighton for another three years, further extending a relationship that began in the early 1990s.

Brighton is home to the Sir Harry Ricardo Research Laboratories, a £3m facility operated by the university’s Internal Combustion Engines group, which is now one of the UK’s leading research facilities of its type.

It includes a range of optically accessed engines that can be used for fundamental research into diesel and gasoline combustion using the latest laser-based diagnostic measurement techniques.

The collaboration recently resulted in completion of a new engine concept called 2/4SIGHT, designed to offer a more environmentally benign alternative to conventional spark ignition.

As part of the new funding arrangement Morgan Heikal will become Ricardo Professor of Automotive Engineering at Brighton.

Neville Jackson, Ricardo technology director, said: ‘The fundamental research work at the university contributes enormously to our own work in engine research, design and development, where we have complementary skills.’

Note, the next issue of The Engineer will feature the final shortlist for the magazine’s 2008 Technology & Innovation Awards, which recognises excellence in collaboration between companies and universities. The winners will be announced at a ceremony in London next month.