People with enterprising minds make things happen, whether it’s starting a business or social venture or doing something new in established organisations.

In this series, we ask people how they’re trying to change the world and what it takes to turn an idea into a reality.

The power of collaboration

Who? The University's Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations, Professor Andy Neely.

What? He looks after everything to do with the University's commercialisation activities, innovation, start-ups, spin-outs and links with business.

What else? He founded the Centre for Business Performance at Cranfield University and the Cambridge Service Alliance, both designed to bring businesses and academics together to solve 'real-world' problems.

And? Founded Anmut, a business specialising in data valuation.

Why? "To make a contribution to society. If Cambridge wants to get its new ideas and inventions into the hands of millions of people around the world, we can't do it alone. We have to collaborate."

What was your first experience of working with industry? Before I went to university, I spent a year in industry as a sponsored student, learning about all aspects of a manufacturing business. I worked in the machine room, using mills, drills and lathes and I also got some experience of other areas like sales and marketing.

My undergraduate degree was in manufacturing engineering so we would visit factories all the time. For my PhD I worked with small and medium-sized manufacturing firms, looking at something called 'goal congruence'. I was trying to understand why employees in some firms were very committed to achieving their organisation's goals - and others less so. That's what got me interested in key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics, which I became well known for.

Did you ever consider a career in industry? I had this idea early on that I would stay in academia until I became a professor and then go into industry. I later realised that's not quite as easy as it sounds. As an academic you become increasingly specialised, whereas managers in firms become increasingly generalised. By the time I figured that out, I realised that if I stayed where I was, I could do both things.

Throughout my career, I've been able to cross boundaries between university, business and the policy world. I like that flexibility. Now I sit on the board of bodies like the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the Local Enterprise Partnership Business Board and the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Universities Group, so I get the best of both worlds.

What was the first thing you set up? My first 'venture' was establishing the Centre for Business Performance initially at Cambridge University, although it subsequently moved to Cranfield.

Through CBP, we established the Performance Measurement Association, an international network bringing together academics and companies interested in performance measurement. Working with all these companies, I realised they could learn a lot from each other.

So we set up the Business Performance Roundtable with companies like British Airways, British Telecom, DHL, NatWest Bank and Thames Water.

This turned out to be hugely valuable for both them and us. If your research is in manufacturing and management, you have to work with business. Organisations are, in effect, our labs.

What next? From around 2010, companies were starting to ask us for help with a very particular issue. The world of manufacturing was changing: it was no longer just about making great products, their customers wanted great services too. For large manufacturers, in particular, this represented a huge organisational challenge as well as a fantastic opportunity.

I set up the Cambridge Service Alliance to bring together firms from different sectors all of which were trying to navigate this new and perplexing landscape. We helped them think about new business models, the technologies and data that would underpin them and how they could bring about the cultural change needed to make this organisational leap.

Any examples? Lots, but one of my current favourites is some work that’s just appeared in the Harvard Business Review about how AI can help companies understand what their customers really think of them. The vast majority of companies use something called a Net Promoter Score to measure customer satisfaction. It asks people how likely they are to recommend a business to a friend on a scale of one to ten. At best, it's a blunt instrument. At worst, it can be actively misleading, lulling firms into a false sense of security that their customers are happy with them when they really aren't.

The Service Alliance has developed a way of analysing the comments people make which, when combined with their numerical scores, gives a much more accurate prediction of whether that customer is likely to return - or take their business elsewhere.

You went on to be Head of the University's Institute for Manufacturing. The IfM is a really interesting model for a university wanting to engage with both industry and government. A particularly unique feature of IfM is IfM Engage, which takes the best ideas from IfM research and makes sure they have a real-world impact.

Universities expect their academics to come up with fantastic ideas, get money for their research projects, manage the team that carries out those projects, write the results up in academic papers, present them at conferences, teach them to undergraduates, go on the radio to explain them, work with industry partners and start new businesses - all while having their next brilliant idea.

Very few people are good at all of those things. At IfM, some of those tasks are given to specialists, people who can help turn research into something that can be applied in industry, at scale.

What does the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations do? The University's mission starts with the phrase 'Contribute to society...' We do that through education, learning and research but if we are going to contribute to society at any kind of scale, we either need to work with existing organisations or create new ones. We can't do it on our own.

My role is about trying to support and enable all those different ways of achieving impact at scale. I oversee the relationships we have with our strategic business partners and I'm on the boards of Cambridge Enterprise and Cambridge Innovation Capital, looking for ways to make it easier for academics to spin out their research or license their IP.

But enterprise in Cambridge is not confined to the University. We are part of one of the world's most successful innovation ecosystems so an important part of my role is to build on our connections with businesses and local and regional government.

You have also found the time to start your own venture? Yes. I like doing new things! Anmut is a specialist consultancy focusing on data valuation. All of us - as individuals and organisations - are creating more and more data all of the time and it has become a major asset for businesses. But if you don't know what that asset is worth, you don't know how much to invest in protecting it.

A good example is the work we've been doing with Highways England. We worked out that its data is worth about a third of its physical assets. That starts to raise some very interesting questions about organisational priorities.

What are you most proud of? If I look back over my career, it's setting things up, getting people to work together to deliver something meaningful. It's about change with purpose.

COVID has been horrible in many, many ways but I have found aspects of it quite liberating. We've been able to do things at speed and which have made a difference, whether that was getting all the PPE out of our labs and over to the hospital in a way it could cope with or setting up a COVID testing centre with AstraZeneca and GSK in a matter of weeks.

What would your colleagues say is your greatest strength? I'd like to think they would say that I'm passionate, dedicated and that I help them get things done. I once did one of those appraisals where you score yourself and are also scored by your boss, your peers and your direct reports. I'd given myself 3.5 out of 5 for decisiveness. This was greeted with a certain amount of hilarity. I'm quite decisive, apparently.

What are the challenges for universities and businesses when they work together? It's true that they are very different worlds. Some people talk about us speaking different languages but I think the big issue is timescales. We typically think about three-year projects, in other words the time it takes to do a PhD.

Most firms will go, 'You're joking. We need some results in the next three months.' But sometimes it's a mis-match of perceptions. We think a project's not over until it's over but if we present interim findings at regular intervals, they are often just as useful to industry partners as the whole thing.

We also need to be clear with our partners about what universities are good for. If a company has an urgent problem, it will have to throw resource at it and solve it itself. It's not sensible to ask a university to do a research project on something that needs immediate action. But if there's a problem a firm knows it should be worrying about but it's not getting to the top of its to-do list, that's when a relationship with a university can be transformative.

Does being in Cambridge make it easy for people to be enterprising? Yes and no. There are a lot of individuals here who have achieved amazing things and that's really inspiring. You try to live up to the expectations of the institution.

Cambridge also opens doors: people will talk to you and are interested to connect. But the University is also in the public eye. We want people to be creative, imaginative, innovative and do new things. But we always need to think really hard if that new thing is something we should be doing. It's definitely a balancing act.

Quick fire

Optimist or pessimist? Optimist

Sky-diving or stamp-collecting? Both, although neither of them recently.

Rule-taker or rule-breaker? Rule-bender. Rules are important but it's also important to question them.

People or ideas? People.

Blend in or stand out? Blend in. You can't create a successful team by standing out.

Continuity or change? Definitely change.

Work, work, work or work-life balance? Work, I'm afraid, although there are times when I wonder if I've got that quite right.

Be lucky or make your own luck? Make your own luck.

Professor Andy Neely is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College.

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.