Bringing the best minds together

Collage of sustainable energy images

UKRI as a unified organisation is increasingly focused on bringing researchers and businesses together to tackle technical challenges and promote UK jobs and growth.

I’m a great admirer of what can be achieved between like-minded people or organisations. Take science park developments such as Cambridge as an example. You can’t help but be inspired by the richness of companies crowding around the academic excellence that exists there. It could equally be a Centre of Doctoral Training, an incubation hub or Catapult.

When I hear about the technical problems that businesses have, I immediately think what are the research problems here and who could help? And if I don’t know the answer there are many people I can ask through the networks. Within UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and beyond.

Politicians and economists talk a lot about the lack of productivity in the UK and the need to create wealth and better jobs.

I firmly believe we can do that by bringing technology businesses together with the best academic minds to solve problems, translate research and innovate faster.

Our colleagues at UKRI’s Innovate UK provide grant funding to businesses working on innovative projects. At the research councils, which make up most of the rest of UKRI, our funding is focused on academic research.

However, we are increasingly looking to involve businesses in the decisions we make about our priorities and we’re encouraging them to work with the researchers we fund.

We already work with lots of businesses

We have a long tradition of working with businesses at EPSRC. Some of that we have pushed, other parts have come through the networks built by the researchers we have funded.

I already see quite an engaged portfolio of businesses working with us. We’re trying to build on that with business forums, bringing stakeholders together more regularly so we can have conversations with them, and keeping them informed through updates and newsletters.

It’s still early days for us as UKRI, and some of these different ways of working to engage business in the research we fund align more naturally with some sectors and disciplines than others.

As UKRI evolves, I am keen to show that supporting research and innovation is seamless at whatever stage of readiness a technology is, and I know that view is shared by many. Our community should be able to work with UKRI in partnership as their research ideas evolve and we should be able to challenge ourselves on how we make that easier for them.

In a nutshell, it’s about making us simpler to understand and navigate and it’s about harmonising our processes.

From a partnership perspective, these are the practical things we are doing.

We have challenged ourselves with the key question ‘why would they, businesses, work with us?’. Most parts of UKRI don’t tend to give them money directly, so what is the value we can offer?

Partnerships understand challenges and solve them

I’m responsible for approaches that specifically target business involvement. One of those is our flagship scheme, EPSRC Prosperity Partnerships which brings together universities and businesses to address industry challenges with high-risk academic research over longer time scales than industry usually prefers.

It works on a ’co-creation’ approach, and I’ve seen some great examples come out of the 66 partnerships we’ve funded since it was launched in 2017.

One of many highlights is the partnership between the University of Oxford and the spin-out company Oxford PV. They’ve developed a perovskite-on-silicon cell for solar panels that increases efficiency of solar energy.

Scientists, technologists and business have come together to understand the problem and the result is allowing the business to evolve.

These prosperity partnerships are particularly attractive to established sectors. We’re keen to extend the idea to more emerging science and technologies and smaller businesses.

We’ve just announced nine new Early-stage Prosperity Partnerships with 100 new partners, and particularly encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises, looking at a range of challenges in areas such as specialist alloys, biomass-derived flexible packaging and recovering valuable materials from human waste.

Our Place-Based Impact Acceleration Account aims to support the development of research and innovation clusters in specific geographical regions. For example, include support for a net zero accelerator in the North East of England that aims to integrate energy systems into a decarbonised local economy.

Hubs look at challenges of commercialising research

Other ways we try to support business and bring them together with researchers is through hubs. Each of these hubs is looking at the challenges of commercialising early-stage research and works with related businesses.

The Catalysis Hub is one example. Catalysts are used a lot in industry and are key to speeding up chemical reactions or lowering the temperature or pressure needed to start a reaction. They save costs and reduce emissions, such as in cars. But we need to continually improve the performance of catalysts and find new ones to help the environment.

These hubs aren’t quick fixes. It’s a long-term game. I recognise that it’s a challenge for business working with these early-stage technologies. Do they embrace an early technology that may end up leading down a blind alley?

This is where we can help by sharing the risk and by trying to understand problems in multifaceted ways.

We want to get things done

One of the great things about our work is seeing the impact of science and innovation and how it has the potential to improve our lives and the planet. Getting to see and talk to our talented people about the work they do is inspiring.

I remember going to the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre in Nottingham, which is working on groundbreaking medical imaging techniques. They wanted to extend their facility. I came back to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and was proud to work with colleagues and the community to help get that support delivered through the organisation and see the centre’s ambitions begin to be realised.

I had a short spell on secondment at what was then British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. That really taught me the importance in business of focusing on a particular technology and the urgency of getting things done.

I also see that in people such as Dr Dave Smith, who was director of technology at Rolls Royce and is now UK National Technology Adviser at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. They get things done.

It’s something I like to encourage in my team here at EPSRC. It’s also central to what we want to do for business here at UKRI. Understand your problems and help you to find someone you can work with to solve them.

Top image:  Credit: UK Research and Innovation

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