Professor Kerry Kirwan – Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) for the University of Warwick
We know that for many businesses it’s been a tough few years. First with Covid, followed by wholesale shocks to the system caused by inflation and supply chain failure, the economy has suffered. Piled on top many businesses – large and small – have been impacted by the war in Ukraine.
During the pandemic universities like mine – Warwick – rallied round and used our collective expertise for the common good. It’s time we step up the same thing to help our businesses and industry rebound and come back stronger, with an eye on more long-term impact too.
Just like how businesses are not something separate from where they’re based, universities too are part of the fabric of local society and should be viewed as a resource for the whole country to take advantage of. We must continue to break down the perception that universities should be something separate, in an ivory tower, and demonstrate how we can be useful to businesses, including SMEs, when traditionally academia might have felt very distant from the factory floor.
This perception is a wrongheaded one though: every process and piece of machinery on the factory floor or small office was once just an idea on a professor’s blackboard or computer screen. Examples like electric vehicles demonstrate this well. Just a few years ago, EVs were dismissed as an unrealistic pipe dream that no driver for pleasure would ever choose. Now Tesla’s are found across the UK, from Land’s End to John O Groats.
Warwick has been at the forefront of the electrification agenda, with our manufacturing group working with car makers including Jaguar Land Rover and Lotus to help them transition to EVs, as well as anticipate the potential problems for customers as more and more people switch. This isn’t just high-minded philosophising though. Work like this between universities and businesses across the country generates billions for the economy and tens of thousands of skilled jobs.
This shouldn’t be dismissed as something that only works for huge businesses though. Last year across the UK over 2000 patents were granted as a result of collaboration between universities and business, with over 1300 spin out companies founded by universities having ran for at least three years. These spin outs, where universities will give seed capital to staff with an idea or product, are a great example of how the academic can and does spill over into the practical.
The Minerva Business Angel programme, for example, is a great way that entrepreneurs and academia can work together. Working along the same lines as Dragon’s Den, the programme offers entrepreneurs the chance to pitch for investment. Through collaboration with eight different universities, the programme has so far supported over 90 companies raise more than £63 million. Minerva is not for profit too, with Angel investors getting involved to offer their expertise and experience rather than in hopes of getting rich quick.
Jointly, businesses, entrepreneurs and universities can together have a huge impact on our local communities too. Here in the West Midlands, we’re doing all we can to support our local economy however we can as the region pivots towards its aim of becoming a tech centre for the UK. Through events like Birmingham Tech Week we want to support business across not just the region but the whole country. It wouldn’t be fair for only big businesses to be able to take advantage of the expertise and workforce in universities – and events like Birmingham Tech Week are a great way of ensuring the SME or sole trader can make use of this too.
The onus is on us, in the university sector, to continue to reach out to businesses – especially SMEs – and let them know the ways we can be useful to them. Events like Birmingham Tech Week, or our Minerva Business Angels are some of the best ways we do this. Of course, as universities we have our priorities of teaching and research, but without looking outwards, towards innovation and industry, we would only be speaking to ourselves. And that’s why it’s so important to the sector to continue to step up this work and get closer to business.
Photo credit: Pictured (from left): Piotr Sobstyl, Mark Tock, and Martin Williams inside Format Ltd’s new office at the Vanguard Centre, Warwick Science Park