Working with universities can give your startup a real boost

Jenny Brookfield, July 5, 2017 8 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Universities offer a veritable treasure trove of services for tech businesses to tap into. From their multi-million pound facilities to their expertise and access to students, your local educational establishment could give you that next push up the growth ladder.

If you’ve ever wondered how academic collaboration with startups works, read on…

Applied Integration

Bosses at Teesside’s Applied Integration had a problem they needed to solve – but they didn’t want to take staff off the day-to-day running of the business to investigate it.

Instead, they got in touch with Teesside University to see how the academics and students may be able to help, and a two-year project was set up.

“We’re running the business and our engineers are busy earning money for the business so it was difficult to say we wanted to concentrate somebody on this piece of work,” says Garry Lofthouse, director of the Stokesley business, which designs automated systems for nuclear attack submarines.

“The university sent someone to come in and sit within our business for a couple of days to understand what our needs were and, from that, we set up the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP).”

Applied Integration's Director Lee Raywood, KTP Associate Ali Almohammad, and Garry Lofthouse. Credit: Doug Moody Photography

Applied Integration’s Director Lee Raywood, KTP Associate Ali Almohammad, and Garry Lofthouse. Credit: Doug Moody Photography

The KTP, part of a nationwide scheme, involved a graduate brought in by the university’s School of Computing working within the business to develop software to streamline Applied Integration’s in-house processes. Monthly meetings with Lofthouse and academics assigned to the KTP ensured the work was on track and the £108,000 cost was funded by grants that the university applied for.

The resulting software produced by graduate Ali Almohammad, known during the project as an associate, helps the company understand client requirements from the start. This reduces costs and development time.

Two years on, the project is coming to an end and has been so successful that the business embarked on a further KTP in early 2017. The second aims to develop an automated design and planning platform that could revolutionise the construction industry, saving millions of pounds and countless working hours. Lofthouse has described it as a potential “game-changer” for the sector.

Not only that, but Almohammad has become a permanent member of staff and the university has benefited too.

“We’ve been able to give the university some real-life data that they can use and we now regularly go and talk to students to try to drive more people into engineering, so we’ve transferred our knowledge that way,” Lofthouse says.

“For the business, it’s been a fantastic way of carrying out the work and to fill our own skills gaps – essentially Ali has had a two-year interview with us.”

What the university says

The Forge, Teesside University’s business hub, is a business’s first port of call to discuss opportunities such as KTPs and other research projects, graduate recruitment or training for existing employees. There may be other ways you can get involved too, such as talking to students about your industry, holding mock interviews, or even helping draw up courses to ensure future skills needs are met.

Fusion Hive in Stockton-on-Tees

Fusion Hive in Stockton-on-Tees

For the tech sector specifically, the university’s Digital City initiative aims to create new businesses, help existing ones grow and show other sectors how they can incorporate digital. Its Launchpad programme helps entrepreneurs go from idea to startup in ten weeks and its Fusion Hive, a tech innovation centre in Stockton, offers accommodation, access to experts and other opportunities.

“Our offering to businesses generally is about making sure they’ve got access to the facilities and experts we have to offer,” says Laura Woods, director of The Forge. “Businesses can get in touch with us directly at The Forge or attend one of our events, but it’s important to stress that we’re not out to sell them anything they don’t need.

“We want to establish a relationship to help a business understand what it needs to do to achieve its ambitions – usually those relationships last beyond a project and we continue to work together to everyone’s benefit.”

Relative Insight

Lancaster-based Relative Insight has carried out multiple projects with various university departments, employed students and even had its technology incorporated into the syllabus of marketing degree courses.

Relative Insight CEO, Ben Hookway

Relative Insight CEO, Ben Hookway

There is a true air of collaboration around the company’s relationship with Lancaster University, and chief executive Ben Hookway says he believes smaller projects are the way forward rather than a full-blown KTP.

“I think the key thing is to find bite-sized short time-frame projects and it also depends on the stage of your start-up,” he says. “Most startups rely on subtle changes of direction, which can mean you’ve got to make quicker decisions. It might be pointless going to a university and saying you want to start research on a two-year project if that direction might change.”

Relative Insight uses technology to objectively analyse how brands and consumers use language to communicate, delivering the results as data that show how language is resonating with audiences.

Initially, the system tackled cyber-crime. For example, it could analyse language to help determine whether an online user is a 12-year-old girl or a 55-year-old man imitating a 12-year-old girl. Now the company has turned its attention to commercial uses.

The likes of Unilever and Disney are customers, using the tech to understand how their customers talk about topics faster and more accurately than if they asked a focus group.

The university marketing department, ranked third in the UK, has helped the business learn more about the industry it was targeting and introduced them to new customers. Students on the MSc Psychology of Advertising course have worked on projects for the business looking at language in advertising, and a team of four MBA students were also brought in to focus on a strategic issue that Hookway and his team didn’t have time to address.

“They approached the project very much as a professional consultancy would and we had their undivided attention for weeks,” Hookway says.

As a result, the technology has become a part of the marketing course syllabus, students have had the chance to have a direct hand in real-life issues within a startup ‘warts and all,’ and Relative Insight has received expert advice for free.

Hookway plans more collaboration with the cybersecurity and language analytic departments, giving access to world-leading individuals in their fields. He adds that Relative Insight also employs marketing students part time, giving it a flexible workforce.

“There’s a lot more to be done with universities than just KTPs, just engaging with a faculty or student bodies can be invaluable for your business,” he adds.

What the university says

Lancaster University has a bespoke approach to working with tech businesses, and there are lots of ways to get involved. Networking events bring companies together with academics to talk about the direction they are going, while workshops in subjects such as R&D tax credits can assist those in the early stage and may lead on to specific projects.

InfoLab21 at Lancaster University

InfoLab21 at Lancaster University

Student placements can last a summer or longer, and could lead on to that student completing a set task for your business under academic supervision, from small pieces of work up to a KTP. The university can assist with applying for funding for any piece of work, and it has helped a series of companies over the years using cash from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Steve Fish, head of business partnerships and enterprise, says they begin by ‘horizon scanning’ to identify a company’s targets and understand where they are trying to get to. Work is centred around InfoLab21, the university’s ICT centre of excellence, which provides R&D, education and training and incubation facilities.

“We don’t just work with a company and stop, companies dip in and out of the support we can provide for them and most things are bespoke, there’s not just a general approach,” Fish says. “There are lots of benefits for the universities and businesses in these close relationships we develop.”

Sigma

Macclesfield-based Sigma’s KTP was unusual as there was no tangible outcome. But the result has made a huge difference to the business.

Sigma's Chris Bush

Sigma’s Chris Bush

The design and digital agency specialises in user experience and wanted to investigate how it could carry out quality research without spending too much time and money from clients’ budgets. As well as user experience, the research looked at accessibility for those who were not digital natives. After meeting Dr David Kreps, an expert in accessibility, a two-year KTP with Salford University began.

“Salford are good at helping organisations ask the right questions and help when it comes to funding, they put a lot of effort into helping us through how to make it work,” says Chris Bush, Sigma’s Head of Experience Design.

“When organisations embark on a KTP they usually have a thing they are making, a tangible outcome. What made us unusual was that we were looking at research – we had a number of things we wanted to achieve but we didn’t necessarily know what they looked like. That was a bit tricky but the university was really helpful in supporting us.”

There were internal meetings every month. The wider project team met every five months to ensure the KTP was on track. The outcome was setting up a ‘usability lab’ within Sigma’s office and building a portfolio of new services to offer to clients, who include AstraZeneca and SportEngland.

“The KTP has been really positive, we’ve managed to build our credibility, increase what we can offer and bring in new customers,” Bush says. “We work with Salford regularly now and it’s also led to academic relationships with other institutions like the University of Manchester and UCLAN, where we’re helping mentor students and provide internships and work experience.”

Other benefits have been the chance to look at the business from another angle and draw in other points of view which may be different to yours. “It’s had a positive impact on the business in lots of ways and it’s been very much a mutual relationship,” Bush adds. “We’re collaborating with them on various things now and having conversations every two to three months to see how we can work together.”

What the university says

To mark its 50th anniversary in 2017, the University of Salford has laid out a vision for how it will work with businesses through ‘industry collaboration zones’ (ICZs). These will “provide new ways for students, colleagues and industry partners to co-create, experiment and learn together”.

The University of Salford's Peel Campus

The University of Salford’s Peel Campus.

“The emphasis is on ‘co-creation’ rather than us helping them,” says Alex Fenton, lecturer in digital business. One of the first ports of call for a tech business could be getting involved in short courses, he says, either as a guest speaker or participating in them. This could then lead on to offering placements or internships, setting up a project around a business issue or hosting courses and events with the university. The new ICZs scheme will provide greater opportunities for collaboration.

“Traditionally a KTP would result in us collecting data and writing research at the end of the project,” says Fenton. “Under the new ICZs we’ll produce real-world research that feeds into the university – we’re able to open out that opportunity further than just a company making money and us writing a few papers.

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This article was updated on 12 July 2017 to clarify that the Teesside KTP mentioned involved a graduate brought in by the university, not a graduate of the university.

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