People in a business meeting

New drugs, diagnostics and medical technologies. Green energy generation, storage and use. Advancing machine learning and AI – and its ethics. The digital transformation of manufacturing and construction. Autonomous vehicles. Nanomaterials. Computer security. Technologies and practices that support more sustainable, more productive agriculture around the world.

These are just some of the areas in which Cambridge is working with business partners to make a difference to all our lives. It’s hugely rewarding to be able to play a part in connecting the people and organisations who, through their collaborations, are bringing Cambridge research to bear on real-world challenges and opportunities.

I’m often asked what a successful partnership looks like. They come in many shapes and sizes and no one partnership is exactly like another but here are what I consider to be the four secrets of success.

1. It takes the long view

As partners, we need to have a long-term vision for the relationship with a focal point that extends beyond the here and now. Academics don’t know exactly where their research will take them. That can make it difficult for executives to set out a conventional business case for a wide-ranging collaboration, the precise objectives of which may not be known at the start. In these circumstances, having a belief in the possibilities of the partnership is important, as AstraZeneca’s Executive Vice President, Biopharmaceuticals R&D, Sir Mene Pangalos articulates:

“I have no doubt that partnerships like the one we have with the University will lead to new and unanticipated scientific and medical breakthroughs.”

But this doesn’t mean we are not committed to achieving impact and value for our partners and ourselves. Quite the opposite. While we may not be able to predict exactly what form a breakthrough will take or when it may happen, we do broadly know what challenges the partnership is trying to address or what opportunities it wants to seize. By putting in place support and oversight mechanisms we make sure that expectations and outcomes on both sides are properly managed.

2. It explores all opportunities for engagement

Collaborations are often centred on research but the most successful ones are about much more than that. Engaging with the University can support organisational development in lots of different ways. It can help businesses find and recruit the talent and skills they will need going forward. Different parts of the University can help them to develop their existing teams through our executive education and professional development programmes. Or partners can benefit from harnessing the brilliant minds – and critical thinking – of our early-career researchers by setting them challenges or bringing them into their organisation on a temporary basis. Becoming part of the ‘Cambridge family’ also connects partners with the wider Cambridge Cluster, bubbling with start-ups and spin-outs busy turning new ideas and technologies into commercial realities.

3. It has a shared sense of purpose

Having a shared vision is critical to success. Particularly when dealing with uncertain outcomes, it is vital for organisations to be committed to the same objectives both at the strategic and operational level.

The University’s mission is to contribute to society and our business partnerships play a vital role in making that happen. Research on its own can’t bring about change at scale. We need strategic partners with the resources, know-how and commitment to put it into practice. This is arguably more important than ever before as we try to tackle some of the world’s most urgent but complex challenges, including a global pandemic and a climate emergency. At the same time, huge opportunities lie ahead enabled particularly (but by no means exclusively) by the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. New digital technologies, big data and AI will have a critical role to play in addressing many of the societal challenges we face and in boosting the UK’s economic competitiveness as we enter a period of post-pandemic recovery and adjust to life outside the EU. It is to everyone’s benefit that we are able to harness these technologies effectively to bring about positive change.

4. It plans for serendipity

Creating the conditions in which new ideas can flourish is also key to a successful partnership. There are many ways both partners can contribute, from organising networking events to building a consortium to sharing the same workspace. Cambridge also benefits from being a small place. There are countless examples of partnerships being forged because the right people have bumped into each other at the school gates or queuing for the coffee machine.

How COVID-19 has affected this aspect of partnerships remains to be seen. It’s clear that people have adapted with remarkable speed to new ways of working. Teams have come together online with extraordinary energy and purpose, in many cases making things happen in weeks that would otherwise have taken months, if not years, to accomplish.

What is less clear, however, is the toll remote working is taking on serendipity. Those ideas that once took flight at a chance meeting may not be doing so over Zoom or Teams. It’s almost certainly harder for initiatives like Project Beacon, a five-year ‘blue-skies’ collaboration with AstraZeneca, which “started over a shepherds’ pie” to get off the ground. When we are able to meet in person again, we will need to focus our energies on bringing people together.

In the meantime, we continue to exploit the technology as best we can. For example, we recently held a joint virtual Symposium which was attended by more than 1500 delegates from AstraZeneca and the University, at which PhD students and postdoctoral researchers (as well as very senior academics) talked about their work, sparking many new ideas for collaboration. There is no question that some of the research presented at this event will go on to transform people’s lives.

Planning for serendipity also benefits from focus. Cambridge is home to vast numbers of experts across many disciplines. To make it easier for organisations to engage and to benefit from a critical mass of activity, we are concentrating our strategic partnerships in those sectors where societal and commercial priorities intersect with areas of research intensity:

  • life sciences and healthcare
  • data and AI
  • energy
  • advanced manufacturing
  • agritech
  • financial services
  • and the creative industries.

By focusing our energies in these key areas, we hope to create even more opportunities for ground-breaking collaborations to emerge and thrive.


Catherine Hasted


Dr Catherine Hasted
Head of Business Partnerships,
Strategic Partnerships Office