How can SMEs make the most of public R&D investment?

In January 2017, the UK Government released a green paper outlining a new industrial strategy that aimed to address the long-term challenges to the UK economy. The strategy forms a critical part of the government’s plan for post-Brexit Britain to deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society, where “wealth and opportunity are spread across every community in our United Kingdom.” As part of this new industrial strategy, the government has committed to an additional investment of £4.7 billion by 2020-21 in research and development (R&D) funding, a large part of which will be channelled through research councils and schemes targeting selected specialist technologies. It is vital that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are able to benefit from this funding, to more widely and evenly spread this public R&D investment and to promote productivity and innovation across the spectrum of UK business. But what should be done to boost knowledge co-creation between SMEs and universities? What are the mutual benefits of interactions between businesses and academia?

These questions were the focus of a recent British Academy and Leverhulme Trust workshop. The event provided a platform to present, discuss and debate the findings of a knowledge transfer research project spanning 4 Higher Education institutions – Birkbeck, University of Westminster, University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Kent. The team, who received funding from the British Academy to collect fresh data, conduct interviews and innovative analysis of previously unpublished data, share a passion for knowledge co-creation and knowledge sharing networks between businesses and universities to increase SMEs’ ability to access funding schemes, boost knowledge co-creation with universities and public research, and make the most of these interactions.

The first part of the workshop provided a detailed background of the group’s research methodology, and the aims and output of the project:

  • To describe the process of knowledge co-creation;
  • To demonstrate how knowledge co-creation can generate long-term impact;
  • To conceptualise and measure the impact of knowledge co-creation

Dr. Muthu Silva, University of Kent, and Dr. Ainurul Rosli, Westminster Business School, started by outlining the diversities presented in the relationship between SMEs and universities. These include differing objectives; ‘cognitive diversities’ such as expertise, experience and perspectives; and a variety of networks. In the first instance, diversities may present a challenge to knowledge co-creation. However they also represent a good opportunity to integrate mutual resources and networks, and to consider how these two halves can integrate to form new and unique combinations of knowledge to identify solutions to challenging problems. Indeed, of those KTP participants interviewed, 77% reported an exploration of new opportunities, be it entering new markets, engaging in new projects or, ultimately, creating new business ventures. This also involved developing valuable networks, across the spectrum of business and academia as a consequence of the knowledge co-creation partnership.

The workshop organisers were then delighted to welcome a panel of experts from academia and industry to talk more broadly about the importance of engaging SMEs and universities in knowledge co-creation opportunities. The panel discussed their personal experiences and views on KTPs, and the need to increase productivity across the spectrum of businesses. Small businesses are capable of bringing in big returns, but they often struggle to deal with challenges of locality and place; due to lacking resources, support often needs to be accessible within a 50 mile location to reduce disadvantage in certain UK business regions.

The panel agreed that, in order to facilitate successful collaboration, it is vital to bring SMEs into the ‘long game’, to make them feel supported, connected and deeply embedded in community. Differences must be acknowledged and accommodated – in academia, for example, there is often an appetite and a hunger to go beyond, but SMEs are inherently more risk-adverse and one small setback could be catastrophic. Many SMEs and companies cannot immediately afford the time and effort to work with universities if they cannot see the benefits of the experience. There must be more dialogue on the spectrum and availability of potential co-creation options, and their benefits to both parties through a clearer, advantageous conceptual framework.

In his closing words, Nick Yip, from Norwich Business School at UEA, thanked participants for the insightful debate and constructive comments. “The beauty of our project’s team,” he said, “is in our differences. Having four independent research backgrounds moves us to look outside of our own disciplines for an interdisciplinary solution – and events such as these provide us with a vital opportunity to develop how we can demonstrate the impact of our research, too.”

Panel Members

The organisers would like to give particular thanks to panel members:

  • Dr Ian Campbell, Director for Health and Life Sciences, Innovate UK
  • Dr David Docherty, Chief Executive, National Centre for Universities and Business
  • Mr Chris McDonald, Chief Executive, Materials Processing Institute
  • Dr Lisa Mooney, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research and Knowledge Exchange) University of East London
  • Professor Stephen Roper, Director, Enterprise Research Centre and Warwick Business School