Transferring knowledge into innovation

The Iain Gray Column

As final entries are received for this year’s KTP awards, it’s an appropriate time to look at the impact that Knowledge Transfer Partnerships have on the engineering sector.

A recent Parliamentary Select Committee report highlighted the continuing dangers to the economy from the so-called Valley of Death. This is the gap between the birth of new ideas and insights in research institutions such as universities, and their ultimate commercialisation when they enter the mainstream and become accessible to business and, indeed, the public.

The Technology Strategy Board uses a variety of methods to try to bridge this ‘valley’ and drive the process of commercialisation in the UK. We don’t subscribe to a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. The businesses and academic partners we work with are all different and have their own needs and priorities. So the Technology Strategy Board uses a number of different tools to energise the innovation process in the UK. There are the Collaborative R&D competitions, grants for feasibility studies, Launchpads and Smart awards to name just a few. We are involved in a number of programmes where other partners also participate. The Small Business Research Initiative is a good example where we administer a large number of these competitions over a year but the money comes primarily from Government departments, some of which have their own in-house delivery methods for the programme.

Helitune’s collaboration with the University of Bristol led to a tool to balancing helicopter rotor blades

The Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) programme is another important tool. It aims to help businesses that may be new to innovation but lack the managerial skills and expertise, helping them to build and embed new knowledge and skills within their organisation. It does this by putting recently qualified graduates into companies as a link between the research base and business. These ‘associates’ are recruited to help deliver a specific project. They can access relevant knowledge from the research area and help apply it in the business arena. KTP projects must have specific outputs but they must also embed innovative capabilities which will remain into the future.

The KTP Best of the Best Awards offer some great examples of how this works in practice. The Technology Strategy Board funded a project between Devon-based SME Helitune and the University of Bristol. This resulted in a more cost-effective way of minimising rotor vibration in helicopters. It built upon academic research carried out 10 years ago. The project put Helitune at the forefront of this sector, the university gained through an expansion of its research in this area – and the research capability is now embedded within the company as both newly-qualified associates have joined the company’s full-time staff. The project was not only the overall winner at the 2012 Best of the Best awards but also won the Engineering Excellence award sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering. As the Academy’s Chief Executive, Philip Greenish, noted: “This KTP transformed the prospects of a company that was falling behind its competitors. It is now world-leading with technology that will benefit its customers enormously.” And I was particularly pleased to see that the innovation culture has persisted with Helitune exhibiting its latest developments at the Innovate UK event in March.

The KTP Awards feature partnerships that are delivering above and beyond their original expectations. Another that was highly commended for engineering excellence was Clyde Space, Scotland’s only spacecraft hardware business.  It had an existing expertise in small satellite power systems and was a reseller of standard nanosatellite kit. But the company wanted to be able to offer a complete nanosatellite platform to anyone with an interest in launching low-power, low-mass technologies into space. Linking with Strathclyde University and an associate in place within the company, in three years Clyde Space transformed themselves into an internationally-recognised  supplier of CubeSat systems and has attracted interest for its services from the Ministry of Defence and DSTL.

The recent award of funding to projects in the civil nuclear supply chain also shows the continuing importance of KTPs in leading-edge technologies. Dalton Nuclear Institute for example was awarded three KTPs, working with BEP Surface Technology, Heat Trace and M.Wright & Son.

KTPs are a vital part of the innovation landscape. They can dramatically change the fortunes of companies while offering individuals a career path from academia into industry (while allowing them to retain their links with research). It is proving its value still further with every succeeding year – as I’m sure the KTP Best of the Best Awards 2013 will demonstrate once again.