Bryce Conduit (left) and James Taylor in the University's Whittle Laboratory

Knowledge exchange has been a personal passion for me, ever since my first job as a Teaching Company Associate (Now Knowledge Transfer Partnerships), managing a knowledge exchange project with Cardiff University and a tech start-up company. That experience sparked my fascination with the impact of university research on the wider world. Since then I’ve been fortunate to pursue this interest, working with universities and businesses across the UK in a range of different roles. I was delighted to get the opportunity to come to Cambridge where there are so many exciting opportunities for knowledge exchange.  

The rewards of the job

It is hugely satisfying when you are able to identify and nurture synergies between businesses and universities to achieve things neither could do on their own. For example, one of my tasks is to manage the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund at Cambridge. I am often told by academics how critical a relatively small injection of cash at the right time can be in helping them move an idea on to the point where it can attract more significant investment or industry support.

Fluidic Analytics, a spin-out from the Department of Chemistry, is a fantastic example of this. During the course of his research, Professor Tuomas Knowles invented a new method for studying proteins and their behaviours which he turned into a lab-scale prototype. It was thanks to the IAA Follow-on Fund that he was able to keep the project going until he could secure the investment needed to commercialise it. The company now employs more than 60 people and has raised more than $40 million in funding.  

The IAA has also played a pivotal role in collaborations with two of the University’s business partners, Rolls-Royce and Arm. An IAA Knowledge Transfer Fellowship enabled Bryce Conduit at Rolls-Royce and James Taylor in the Whittle Lab (pictured above) to use machine learning to predict how much damage an aeroengine’s compressor blades can sustain before they need to be repaired or replaced. To solve the problem, the pair developed a radical new approach to rapid prototyping that has the potential to revolutionise the way engineers design and optimise turbomachinery.  

IAA Funding also enabled two postdocs to be seconded to Arm for a year to help it assess the feasibility of building a ‘proper’ industry-scale prototype of the ground-breaking digital security concepts being developed at the University’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. If adopted, this will affect virtually all of us, improving the security of the billions of phones, computers and myriad devices that rely in Arm technology.

Sometimes we talk about technology as if is a discrete entity that can be boxed up and exchanged for money. In practice, of course, it is not that simple. Technology is also about the know-how that resides in a researcher’s head. People are at the heart of knowledge exchange, whether it is someone from Rolls-Royce coming to work in the Whittle Lab or University researchers going to work at Arm. In both cases, it gives them an opportunity to immerse themselves in a different world which can be hugely beneficial for the individuals concerned as well as paving the way for future collaborations.

Making connections

We are fortunate at Cambridge that we have a strong track record of both entrepreneurship and collaboration with industry and other external partners. Many academics have achieved amazing things through the commercialisation of their research – and are expert at doing so.  But how do you make sure, in an organisation of our size, that everyone who wants to get involved in knowledge exchange knows how to? That’s where the University’s network of knowledge exchange professionals comes in. One of our roles is to unearth that tacit knowledge within the University, share it widely and develop best practice so that everyone can benefit. The other is about trying to connect, translate and mediate between the different worlds of academia and business and policy.

Laying the groundwork

An often overlooked aspect of knowledge exchange is the importance of timing. An external partner has to be at exactly the right point in their development lifecycle to need our input. That need has to align with an academic or research group having the interest and capacity to pursue the research problem. There is a certain amount of luck involved in getting the timing right but, to borrow a well-worn phrase, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’. 

As knowledge exchange professionals, we spend a lot of time and effort doing the groundwork, forging connections and sharing information, often without a clear idea at the outset of what will bear fruit. You know something will happen, you just don't know what. Both sides - universities and businesses – have to be prepared to make this kind of investment of time and resources.

A lot of people are in academia because of their natural curiosity: they want to understand how things work and why they are the way they are. By connecting them with the outside world, I can give them access to interesting new problems and help them turn their ideas into realities that go on to make a difference to people’s lives. Making that happen is a genuinely rewarding task: I still can’t quite believe my luck that I ended up here.

Claire McGlynn, Head of Impact Acceleration, Research Strategy Office

November 2021








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