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Universities help boost returns for TSB funding

Board says it has no plans to increase academic involvement

Collaborative projects funded by the Technology Strategy Board and involving two or more academic partners contribute higher monetary returns than TSB-funded projects carried out by industry alone, an independent evaluation has found.

The study, undertaken for the TSB by Public and Corporate Economic Consultants and published on 29 September, estimates that collaborative R&D projects involving industry and two or more academic partners gave an average return of £9.67 per £1 of government funding. This compares with a return of £4.22 for projects with no academic partners and an overall average return of £6.71. Better than average returns were also seen from grants of less than £750,000 and those involving five or six partners overall.

Under TSB rules, partnerships need not involve universities. The report recommends that future collaborations should include at least one. However, David Bott, director of innovation programmes at the TSB told Research Fortnight that this is a “naïve assertion”, and the body has no plans to make academic involvement compulsory.

“These results are from the days when you were dealing with primarily large and medium-sized companies, who had worked with universities for a long while,” he explains. “It would be stupid to go to small companies in Shoreditch and say ‘you must work with a university’.”

For this study some 396 business and academic participants completing projects between 2004 and 2009 were interviewed. They constituted a third of all participants in the Collaborative R&D scheme with a total grant value of £195 million. In addition, 205 bidders who did not receive funding were also surveyed.

The results reflect the TSB’s earlier projects, says Bott, such as those inherited from the Department of Trade and Industry, which were mainly within automotive, aerospace and electronics industries, based around emerging technologies, and designed to work with universities. It is not at all imperative for a university to be involved for a project to make money, he says emphatically.

“It’s the companies that value the integration, it’s not a government imperative—that’s the most important message out there. That fits with the fact that if you want to know something that’s in the early knowledge base, it’s a brilliant way of [doing that]. Later on, where you’re getting to a more developmental stage, where the Technology Innovation Centres are going to be for example, universities have a lesser role to play.”

Compared with its early days the TSB today gives funds to a wider variety of fields and types of company, says Bott. Other results from the study, an early version of which the TSB saw around Easter, have been used to shape the funder’s changing portfolio, he adds.

“We’ve already started going for smaller, more logical processes, [such as] with our work on feasibility studies and the launch pad,” says Bott. “We’re also building better links. It’s not really clear from the data, but we think that you can see that people who knew one another other beforehand and had a shared interest, tended to do a bit better.”

And although there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, the evidence reinforces that there’s a “sweet spot” of four or five partners for a mid-sized grant, Bott adds. “Partly because that brings together a number of technological capabilities, without overburdening with too much bureaucracy,” he says.

The evaluation also asked grant participants about the impact of their grant. Around nine in ten anticipated that new products or services would be created as a result of their funding. However only 35 per cent said they were likely to gain intellectual property and patents as a result of the projects, and only 32 per cent said it had helped them gain further finance to exploit their ideas.

“Yes we’re disappointed, but that’s not how the TSB operates now, we’re doing much more to link companies into the financial side,” says Bott. “We anticipate running this again in a few years and getting much better results.”