PraxisAuril's spring conference continues to go from strength to strength, with one in three delegates a first-time attendant.

PraxisAuril, the UK-based professional association for knowledge exchange staff, invited members and sector stakeholders to Telford for its spring conference – the first time the event has been run under the PraxisAuril banner, following a merger of peers PraxisUnico and Auril last year.

The conference has been growing year-on-year and 2018 proved no different, with 70 speakers hailing not just from the UK but also much further afield, such as Australia. A particular point of pride for Michael Bath, chairman of the spring conference program committee and technology transfer manager at Durham University, was that one in three delegates this year was a first-time attendant.

Delegates at the PraxisAuril spring conference 2018

Tom Thackray, director for innovation at business organisation the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), was the first keynote speaker of the day. A focus of his speech, and indeed the conference, was the planned Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), which was still a way off despite the various actors’ aim to have it in place “by autumn”, Thackray said.

Tom Thackray

The KEF is intended to boost the efficiency of public funding in knowledge exchange. Its development is being led by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) council Research England, which has been collaborating with organisations including PraxisAuril as well as universities, learned societies, the devolved nations funding councils, other UKRI research councils and the National Centre for Universities and Business, which fosters collaboration between universities and businesses.

One of the problems, Thackray said quoting an unnamed industry person, was the perception that “the UK is all engine but no transmission”. There were no metrics yet for how the KEF was supposed to work and businesses were concerned that any framework could narrow their choices in collaborating with institutions.

Taking a question from Tony Raven, chief executive of University of Cambridge’s tech transfer arm Cambridge Enterprise, on how knowledge exchange could be made to work more efficiently, Thackray said companies that joined an organisation such as the CBI “are not part of the problem” as they were keen to tap into the ecosystem. The challenge was connecting with companies on the outskirts of the ecosystem.

Thackray also acknowledged the challenges of Brexit, noting that both the UK and the remainder of the EU had benefited significantly from close collaboration – universities in particular had received a significant amount of funding through the Horizon2020 program, an €80bn ($94bn) financial instrument to drive research and innovation across the union.

Despite all the doom and gloom, “our scientists and entrepreneurs are cause for optimism”, Thackray said. So long as access to talent and resources could be maintained, the country would be in a great position. The CBI, he added, wanted that potential realised.

Rebecca Endean, strategy director at UKRI, followed a welcome speech by Angela Kukula, chairwoman of PraxisAuril’s board, and an introduction to the history of Telford by Jan Gilder, director of the project support office at University of Wolverhampton.

Angela Kukula

Endean provided an overview of UKRI’s operations, summarising that the organisation had more than £6.5bn ($8.6bn) in combined annual budget, issued some 3,900 research and business grants annually and supported 151 universities with research funding.

UKRI was officially launched on April 1, uniting the seven research councils, innovation agency Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange functions of now-defunct public body the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The organisation’s job, Endean said, was to make the system function as a whole, adhering to four core values – collaboration, innovation, integrity and excellence.

Endean said UKRI “does not do much itself”, it simply funds projects and fosters collaborations, particularly those that fit within the government’s Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges, which are focused on clean growth – energy, food and construction; an ageing society – drug manufacturing, precision medicine, data, healthy ageing; mobility – recyclable, high-performance and low-cost batteries, extreme robotics, national space test facility; artificial intelligence and the data economy.

Rebecca Endean

A crucial aspect, Endean said, was that “you do not want to fund things the market would have funded anyway” as that would constitute a waste of public money. The real challenge was to identify technologies that researchers and companies were interested in, get them to collaborate and directing funding to those projects most effectively.

The first set of breakout sessions then took place, with Global University Venturing following a discussion around creative approaches to collaborative knowledge exchange project development. The session looked particularly at what lessons could be drawn from arts, humanities and social sciences.

The panel featured Paul Moore, head of the school of communication and media at Ulster University, Tim Brundle, director of research and impact at Ulster University, and Becca Edwards, knowledge exchange and impact manager at Bournemouth University.

Moore opened the discussion by noting that it had always been difficult to convince people to invest in the arts and humanities instead of the National Health Service (NHS).

Edwards picked up on that statement, underlining the importance of interdisciplinary research and saying that, according to her observations, some of the most promising collaborations were, in fact, coming out of creative industries with healthcare.

Moore’s point was an interesting one to be made in a wider context, too. As long-term GUV readers may remember, a panel on the creative industries at the PraxisAuril conference in June 2017 noted that the Harry Potter franchise had generated more in UK exports than pharmaceuticals and telecoms.

Moore, while not making the same point about Harry Potter, said that “commercialising art is not a dirty sentence” – artists needed to make money just like everyone else. In fact, he added, the creative economy was worth £84bn to the UK. The sector was not purely entertainment, either, but also included areas such as immersive technologies.

Tim Brundle

Brundle, however, managed to namedrop another well-known franchise, explaining that his institution had been manufacturing vegan costumes for an actor on the television show Game of Thrones. Ulster, he added, was dealing with TV channel HBO on a daily basis, illustrating how fruitful that particular collaboration had been.

A key challenge, Moore said, had been explaining to academics that knowledge exchange in that area really was all about industry needs – a mere 10% of public funding ended up in university researchers’ hands.

Brundle was keen to point out that Belfast was the second-fastest growing software city in the UK, behind only London. The university had established a Creative Industries Institute with an initial £10m budget, though the project was expected to become much larger. Indeed, the growth of creative technologies, Brundle explained, outdid “everything else in Northern Ireland”.

In a second breakout session, Dean Moss, chief executive of UniQuest, University of Queensland’s tech transfer office, Rebecca Wilson, head of corporate partnerships at Imperial College London, and Ray Kent, director of research administration at Royal Veterinary College discussed their views on commercialisation and collaboration.

Moss noted that UniQuest was a local leader in commercialisation efforts and industry engagement but lamented the fact that there had been a decline in real terms in active commercialisation in Australia.

He explained that in 2015, the group of eight – a national coalition of universities – restructured their tech transfer offices after government policy called for increased industry engagement. The resulting offices did not, however, end up with more resources, they were merely assigned different objectives.

Nonetheless, Moss said, UniQuest undertook 2,700 corporate partnerships each year. But still, it was the government’s perception that “universities are the problem and are not getting their innovations out to industry”. It was, Moss acknowledged, “very hard to overcome that perception”.

Wilson, meanwhile, said the particular challenge at Imperial had been getting the message out to academics that more collaborations with industry were a good thing. More collaborations, she explained, meant more contracts and that meant more funding.

Kent explained that working for a small college represented its own unique set of challenges but also opportunities. The fact that he was in charge of a very small team – two people – meant they could be very agile.

Illustrating just how small the college was, Kent explained it had some 190 academics – a third of them clinicians – but they worked all over the globe, including remote places in Africa.

His team handled strategic alliances and managed intellectual property, conducting tech transfer for human and animal health in areas such as disease risk surveillance, biomechanics and rapid disease response. His unit’s consultancy work was clinical consultancy, he added.

James Wilkie of University of Birmingham Enterprise chats to a fellow delegate

A third breakout session looked at accelerators and was led by Jeff Skinner, executive director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London Business School.

The panel also featured Ana Avaliani, head of enterprise at Royal Academy of Engineering, Mark Hammond, founder of accelerator Deep Science Ventures, and Olga Kozlova, director of Converge Challenge, an entrepreneurship development program for staff and students at Scotland’s universities and research institutes.

Kozlova noted that tech transfer offices tended to struggle with the number of opportunities and the associated workload – building teams and viable business models. In an ideal world, offices would “parachute an experienced chief executive” but this was unlikely to happen, she said.

The solution, according to Kozlova, was to train early researchers and PhD candidates how to engage with industry and investors. Universities, she added, were unlikely to be keen on developing commercial awareness in principal investigators as they wanted them to bring in grant funding and remain embedded on campus.

She added that for Converge Challenge, funding was the proverbial carrot – a way to get teams to join the accelerator rather than the endgame.

Hammond echoed those thoughts, explaining that £50,000 was enough to conduct early-stage research and develop a prototype, but that the key was to find passionate entrepreneurs with ideas that could attract VC funding later.

Deep Science Ventures, he said, accepted only 3% of applicants, a number that was dropping. Hammond argued that “we should be taking a step back and embedding an entrepreneurial culture more in the education system”, underlining that “automation means coming out of university into a job is going to be less and less the norm”.

Following up on Kozlova’s claim that the accelerator sector was busy, Hammond noted that there was still space for both university-owned and external initiatives.

Avaliani also picked up on the funding point, saying that “a little bit of money always helps” but underlining that part of the investment in a project was paid to the university if the founder was an academic, to buy the latter’s time from the institution.

Royal Academy of Engineering did not, Avaliani noted, provide any physical space for teams. Instead, it aimed to foster a community and hold meetings to touch base, connect entrepreneurs with specialists and mentors, and provide access to the college’s network.

Avaliani argued that the first lesson every entrepreneur was taught when joining the college’s accelerator program was to “go out and talk to hundreds of potential customers to understand whether there is actually a need for the product”.

Skinner, who revealed that at London Business School, Innovate UK had become an “extraordinarily valuable partner for gap funding”, then summed up the discussion, noting that the panel was in agreement that building a business was an accessible task. He was also heartened by the fact that, given the right training, researchers could in fact be “very good” at launching companies.

The conference drew in delegates from further afield, such as Anthony Boccanfuso of the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership, seen here speaking to fellow delegates

PraxisAuril’s conference remains one of the most important events in the UK’s technology transfer space, further underlined by private comments made to Global University Venturing on the floor by a range of delegates.

With much up in the air about the KEF and Brexit, and areas such as creative industries presenting continuing challenges and opportunities in equal measure, knowledge exchange finds itself at an inflection point and one of its most interesting periods. And the fact that one in three delegates was a first-time attendee at this year’s conference is reassuring proof that there is a pipeline of talent ready to lead the way.

– Photographs courtesy of PraxisAuril / Mark Harvey from iD8 Photography