HR & Management

How engaging with universities can help smaller businesses grow

6 min read

20 November 2014

The UK has an internationally renowned reputation for higher education – many of our top universities are among the world’s finest. As well as continuing to offer our students an excellent education and embarking on pioneering research, our universities are increasingly focused on ensuring they are relevant to the communities and the economies in which they are located.

Engaging with businesses and communities to make a positive impact on the wider world is becoming part of the culture and strategy of most of our universities.

This has led to significant investments in equipment, facilities, research and more creative thinking about how universities can support and stimulate enterprise. All this has ensured there are more and more opportunities for businesses and universities to work together.

Traditionally engagements with universities have been with larger companies. However, smaller businesses can also benefit from these partnerships.

Government has recognised the benefits of small and medium businesses working with universities through the Small Business Charter. The Charter recognises those business schools that are most actively working with smaller businesses. Sir Andrew Witty, in his review ‘Encouraging a British Invention Revolution’, stressed the need for more SMEs to work with universities.

In order to achieve this most effectively, these interactions need to recognise the conditions of both parties. Universities offer expertise and access to leading research. Entrepreneurial smaller businesses are highly innovative and responsive to their customers – creating ideal environments for the development and application of innovative research. Combined, there is real potential to forge crucibles of innovation and exploration.

Here are examples of how SMEs and universities can work together:

1. Recruit skilled graduates

Taking on skilled graduates can be a cost-effective way of boosting your workforce. Many universities offer student placements within businesses where the students or graduates work on specific research or consultancy projects. These projects are an excellent way to find solutions to problems within your business, or a source of new ideas. They are also a great way to spot talent. We encourage businesses to think about placements as an extended, and much more robust, interview.

2. Use their expensive equipment for research and rapid prototyping

Having access to high-tech equipment is one of the great barriers to innovation for many SMEs – particularly for those involved in manufacturing. Many universities have made significant investments in high-end specialist equipment that could be used by SMEs. 

SMEs can get access to cutting-edge equipment, and skilled technical support for a relatively small fee, making the research and development of new products and services much easier for entrepreneurial businesses seeking to grow.

Some universities have also invested in rapid-prototyping equipment such as 3D printers to enable businesses to test out ideas at a fraction of the cost, and time, it would take with using traditional methods that involve tooling up cnc machines.

3. Engage in collaborative research projects

Got an idea for a potential new product or service but need help bringing it to fruition? By working alongside universities, businesses can bring world-leading academic experts into their R&D departments at a fraction of the cost.

As well as gaining access to leading thinkers, collaborative research projects open up additional resources including student researchers, top facilities and experts in intellectual property.

4.Take advantage of their contacts and global reach

Many universities have established a wide ranging and high volume of contacts locally and globally. As well as recruiting top talent from abroad to study in the UK, many are now also setting up campuses in other countries and have a thorough understanding of local cultures and frameworks – they are able to steer through red tape and cultural pitfalls.

By partnering with a UK university to establish links abroad, you are also benefitting from associating with an organisation with an established and trusted reputation, which opens up more doors to find business partners. At Lancaster our China Catalyst programme brings together British and Chinese companies for long-term collaboration.

5. Develop your top managerial team

Universities are great places to develop yourself as an owner/manager and to develop your management top team to ensure your leadership is ready to guide the business through growth. As well as MBAs, management schools offer specialist development programmes specifically focussed on SMEs, which encourages managers to lift their head out of their business and work in a peer network on the future of their companies.

Opportunities to develop yourself and your team can be found in other departments – including, for example, drama and the arts as well as project management and other specific skills in departments such as engineering and computing.

6. Embed yourself on campus

A number of universities have developed specialist facilities on their campuses to accommodate businesses. Apart from providing an address at a prestigious and vibrant establishment, these co-location facilities ensure companies are embedded within academic departments, so creating close links with researchers. This provides an environment that encourages the exchange of ideas between academics, researchers and businesses – leading to greater potential for innovations.

7. Commercialise intellectual property from university research

Universities are busy hubs of bright ideas. Research leads to technological innovation and better understanding of our world. Universities do not always have the means, or expertise, to exploit marketable intellectual property. Businesses can take advantage of this high-quality research by licensing discoveries and intellectual property from universities.

Professor Andrew Atherton is deputy vice-chancellor of Lancaster University.