Sometimes universities and businesses seem to exist on different planets. Yet people from universities and business, including small businesses and start-ups, often have much to gain from working together. While some organisations already have very successful collaborations and partnerships, many universities and businesses are eager to develop their work with other sectors.

People in business may drive past their local university each day yet know next to nothing about what goes on in those big buildings – although they always seem to be putting up new ones!
Those who work in universities may see signs to business parks or areas where large industries are located. But they may have little or no idea of what they do.

So, if as a small business or start-up you want to work with a university, what might you do?

Why collaborate?

The starting point for you is probably to be clear about why you want to collaborate. This could be for a myriad of reasons. Both universities and businesses have things of value as well as things they are looking for. For example, university researchers are highly motivated to ensure their research knowledge benefits society – and they may need business partners to help. A start-up may be looking for access to expensive technical equipment – something a local university may be able to provide.

How can you identify the right university or academic?

Once you have clarified what you are looking for in terms of expertise, facilities etc, how do you identify who in the university sector can help you?

Konfer, launched by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) is a good place to start.

Konfer is a tool that harvests information about expertise and facilities in universities and presents this as a searchable database.

Alternatively, you might contact your local knowledge transfer advisor. Or you can contact the national Knowledge Transfer Network.

If you want to work with your local university, another option, that may seem blindingly obvious, is to contact them. However, I know from personal experience and from listening to business people, that this can be very frustrating. Often messages left get no response.

Another way could be to attend a public lecture or other event run at the university (look at the university events web pages). These are usually chaired by a senior member of the university staff so you can catch them after the talk.

Or in many regions there are business networking events. For example, First Friday events run in several cities and large towns. University people are able to attend in some cases.

Lastly, you could use an independent consultant who has the contacts and experience of universities. They may also help you to identify possible collaborators as well as broker meetings.

What are they like?

Next it is useful to understand something about the university and people you are thinking of partnering with.

You can do some of this through searching the internet. One useful thing you can find out about is the mission of the university. These are often embedded in their strategy. Universities vary hugely in their focus. Most people have heard of the Russell group – these are all what’s called ‘research-intensive’. But many other universities that are not in the Russell group do lots of great research too. Some universities have a strong focus on working with different organisations, including business, in their region. A further group is strongly focused on educating students. And then there is a group of small, specialist universities. But while each university will have its own balance of activities, you are likely to find research, education, and collaborations happening in all of them. My advice is not to discount the non-Russell Group universities.

But let’s get back to missions. If as a start-up your mission is to ‘to create cuddly programmable toys that help disabled children to learn’, you may sense that a university whose mission is ‘to make a clear difference to the educational lives of the disadvantaged communities we serve’ could be worth contacting. But you may feel that a university whose mission is ‘to undertake internationally excellent research and be recognised as a top 10 university for research in the UK’ has less appeal for you.

Meeting your potential collaborator

Obviously, you can only find out so much about a potential collaborator from the web – you need to meet them to discover more.

When you meet with someone from the university, remember that although you are clear about what you want, they have their own goals, ways of working etc. If this is someone you are thinking of working with, building a good relationship with them will be important. To do this you will need to listen carefully to what they have to say and how they say it. And you should be asking yourself if this is someone you believe you could work with.

They may use a lot of jargon and terms you don’t understand. Don’t hesitate to ask them to explain and do your best to make sure your leave with a really good understanding of what they might want out of working with you.

It’s well worth meeting them at the university and asking for a tour if you are interested in using any lab facilities or business space. You may have a chance to talk to existing residents too.

Getting people on board

At this point I strongly advise getting any other key staff in your organisation on board and involved – if you haven’t already done so.

Next the people from each organisation who are likely to be working together need to meet and get to know each other. Over dinner is one possibility. A meeting to discuss ideas for the collaboration and let everyone feed in their thoughts should follow.

Start small

Once you have the people from both organisations established, it’s a good idea to begin the collaboration with something relatively small, such as running a few test samples from you at the university. A small project gives you the opportunity to find out how well you work together and build understanding of each other.

In summary, my top tips for a start up or small business wishing to work with a university are:
• Be clear about your reason for collaborating and what you want as an outcome
• Check you understand the goal of the university and the main person you will work with
• Ensure any other staff you have are on board
• Meet periodically with your university collaborators and check progress
• Make it exciting
• Celebrate every success, however small.

This post is based on a talk given by Jenny Ames on 12 September 2018 at a Society of Chemical Industry meeting ‘From the Brain to the Bank: The journey of creating value from science’.

Other relevant posts by Jenny Ames include:

Top Tips for university researchers to collaborate with non-academic organisations

The importance of having a research engagement strategy

During a 35 year career in higher education, Jenny Ames led a productive research group. She held the title of Professor at 6 universities, graduated ~25 PhD students and mentored ~25 contract researchers. She was also a senior manager for 8 years.
Since 2017 Jenny has been Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd. Services provided include:

*Identifying potential partners and facilitating collaborations for a specific area of your organisation (working with any sector including for-profit business).

*Working with you to develop and implement your organisation’s strategy in research/knowledge generation, knowledge exchange, including university REF preparations.

*Coaching people in career transition. This means individuals who are considering a change in career direction or who have recently moved into a different sector, organisation or job role. Jenny is currently completing the ILM accredited Level 5 Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring.


Author Jenny Ames

Working with Universities, Businesses and their Stakeholders to benefit Society.

More posts by Jenny Ames