Happy young business woman shaking hands with another female

Knowledge transfer (KT) is a term used to encompass a very broad range of activities to support mutually beneficial collaborations between universities, businesses and the public sector.

KT is a ‘contact sport’; it works best when people meet to exchange ideas, sometimes serendipitiously, and spot new opportunities.

Tim Minshall

It’s all about the transfer of tangible and intellectual property, expertise, learning and skills between academia and the non-academic community. It’s also well recognised by government and funders as an important return on the UK’s investment in academic research, one that provides a significant driving force for enhancing economic growth and societal wellbeing. For academics, KT can be a way of gaining new perspectives on possible directions and approaches for research. This two-way exchange element of KT is at the heart of successful and sustainable collaboration.

Academics are often asked to consider the potential audiences, impact and applications for their work, and increasingly there are opportunities to apply for grants specifically with non-academic collaborative partners. In response, Research Councils UK (RCUK) has recently launched the RCUK Knowledge Exchange and Impact as a single point of access for those interested in KT schemes and activities.

Making the most of research

Discussion around KT often focuses on the formation of spin-out business, or the licensing of intellectual property (IP), based on the outputs of university science and technology-related research. Although these are vitally important areas, KT actually encompasses a much broader range of activities and is not limited to the science and technology disciplines. In terms of activities, KT can be split into six types:

People: When students graduate and join the workforce, they bring with them new knowledge and are effectively helping to ‘regenerate the gene pool’ of industry. The temporary placement of students and graduates in companies or in the public or voluntary sectors can be a more directed way of exchanging knowledge on a shorter term basis. One of the longest standing schemes is Knowledge Transfer Partnerships funded by the Technology Strategy Board and supported by most UK Research Councils.

Publication and events: Knowledge is transferred through publication of research outputs, and through events and networking. In Cambridge, events can vary from Horizon Seminars (which provide a first look at new findings and developments at the University and are organised by Research Services Division) to the Corporate Gateway (offering a bespoke programme of customised meetings with leading University researchers and new technology companies in Cambridge).

Collaborative research: This is a powerful means of creating opportunities for innovative knowledge exchange. In Cambridge, examples include the Cambridge Integrated Knowledge Centre (CIKC), which brings together University research, industry secondments, business acumen and manufacturing expertise to help those with exploitable concepts to achieve commercial success in photonics and electronics; and the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), which creates new ideas and approaches to modern industrial practice – from understanding markets and technologies, through product and process design, to operations, distribution and related services. As a whole, the University typically engages in 650 research agreements, worth £22 million, with industry annually.

Consultancy: The provision of domain-specific expert advice and training to external clients by university staff can be a very effective KT mechanism – it can provide a platform for the exchange of both explicit and more tacit knowledge, and a window on areas of possible collaboration. Support for consultancy is one service offered by Cambridge Enterprise Ltd. The IfM also disseminates its research outputs through consultancy services provided by the University-owned company IfM Education and Consultancy Services Ltd. Together, Cambridge Enterprise and IfM provide consultancy support to more than 200 companies annually.

Licensing: Licensing the right to use specific research outputs (IP such as patentable ideas) is an important KT mechanism. Information on IP that is available for licensing is accessible through various websites, but successful licensing arrangements are long-term relationships often leading to research collaborations and individual contacts. Licensing is a key area of activity for Cambridge Enterprise, with about 50 new commercial agreements closed annually and a portfolio of over 450 active licence agreements.

New businesses: Bringing research outputs to market through the formation of a new business can be particularly appropriate when the application represents a ‘disruption’ to the current market or sector, or where there isn’t any obvious external partner to whom the idea could be licensed. New businesses based on research outputs often build their business models around collaboration with larger, established firms to access expertise, equipment and routes to market. Cambridge has a well-developed ecosystem for supporting this, including student business-plan programmes, area angel networks and access to capital through Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds (see: ie.cam.ac.uk).

KT is a contact sport

Three key factors seem to underpin successful KT. First, it’s not a ‘zero cost’ activity; it takes effort and time to make it work. Second, it is a ‘contact sport’; it works best when people meet to exchange ideas, sometimes serendipitously, and spot new opportunities. Third, it needs practical, timely and active support at an institutional level – within companies and universities – encouraging a culture of open access and open innovation.

Examples of support for KT in Cambridge

Student recruitment and student projects

Public availability of research results, events and networking

Collaborative research

Licensing of research outputs

Formation of new businesses

For more information, please contact the author Dr Tim Minshall (thwm100@eng. cam.ac.uk) at the Centre for Technology Management in the IfM. Dr Minshall has extensive experience of supporting industry–academic collaboration, technology transfer and open innovation.

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