Spotlight: The University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham has launched a new knowledge exchange and impact strategy, but the team faces Brexit uncertainty and a challenging local economy, reports James Higgins

Why has Nottingham launched a knowledge exchange strategy?

At the end of 2019, the University of Nottingham launched a new knowledge exchange and impact strategy, which outlines five priorities for the university as it embarks on the next few years.

It is an agenda rising fast on institutional to-do lists following an announcement in September 2019 from universities minister Chris Skidmore that the first knowledge exchange framework (KEF) will be implemented next year. The KEF was set out in the government’s Industrial Strategy white paper in January 2019 after a plan for it was detailed in November 2017 by then-minister Jo Johnson. The purpose – as with other areas of university output – is to offer benchmarked measures for regulators, funders and businesses (which will co-fund many HE projects).

Prof Dame Jessica Corner is pro-vice-chancellor for research and knowledge exchange at Nottingham. She starts by explaining her pride in the university’s achievements so far, but explains a new strategy is needed not just to improve the institution’s standing (she says the university is regularly just outside the top 10 on league tables), but to bring purpose to this agenda.

“A spin-out company acquired by a multinational company that then ends up furthering the United States economy – because huge global companies might take one of our companies and the technology with it – was seen as a success, but, I think,
is it actually as much a success as we could make it? Are we doing things to grow the United Kingdom economy and, in particular, the immediate hinterland? Given where we sit, we should be doing more to drive that.”

Senior leaders at Nottingham fear Brexit will dent the UK research community and reduce the number of highly skilled researchers moving to the country.

What is Nottingham prioritising?

1) Culture change

The university’s strategy is quite clear in that it wants to encourage staff to engage with knowledge exchange and offer more career and promotion pathways to so do.

It wants to ensure staff are trained in enterprise and policy engagement.

Prof Corner says a relatively small proportion of academics think of their work in these terms but says a recent visit to Silicon Valley inspired her greatly. “Over there, it’s more normal and expected that academics, generally, would choose to start their own company using their own intellectual property (IP). Perhaps try and fail at it and that will be fine and then start again, you know, and that’s normal,” she explains.

The senior leadership team will launch the Knowledge Exchange Academy to upskill university academics as a generation of high-tech entrepreneurs.

Following Prof Corner’s consultations with members of academic staff, she said offering clear career recognition for knowledge exchange underpins what happens next.

She suggests academics could “replace writing research papers or some teaching”, with focus on knowledge exchange. Corner would like academics to “dedicate their careers to this” and says her ultimate ambition is to employ professors of entrepreneurial achievement.

2) Encourage entrepreneurialism

The strategy lays out the university’s plan for using their intellectual property better, simplifying processes, increasing ‘spin-outs’ and developing the university’s portfolio of companies. The university aims to build a science park campus and double the size of its Jubilee Campus, its innovation park, by 2030. The university also launched Nottingham Technology Ventures (NTV) in 2017, a subsidiary to manage the university’s portfolio.

Andy Naylor, NTV’s chief executive, says the external relationship avoids the need for lengthy decision by committee. Within its first year, Naylor says, NTV facilitated the sale of four companies which generated “£11.5m in cash – real cash – for the university”. The university has two funds – an invention fund and a pathfinder fund – to help steer its companies. The first allocates £5m a year to existing companies and the second, ring-fenced higher education infrastructure funding, spends around £100,000 a time on fledgling businesses. Last year, the portfolio raised around £36m in cash.

3) Develop the local area

Both economically and socially, a cornerstone of Nottingham’s ambition is to lift up the area where it is based. Historically, the East Midlands (and the city itself) is an area with high levels of deprivation. Giving more back to the city and contributing to a stronger business and enterprise environment around it are vital to underpin the success of the university’s wider knowledge exchange ambitions. Prof Corner says she wants to see the university as part of the town “rather than it being an ivory tower on the hill”.

This ‘ivory tower’ impression is reinforced by the fact that so few graduates remain in the city. According to statistics compiled by Nottinghamshire County Council in 2017, just 29% of graduates from the city’s two universities stayed in the city three years after completing their studies. This is the second lowest of all core cities in England (which include Birmingham, Sheffield, Cardiff and Newcastle), the council report notes.

“If we had a really healthy ecosystem of startup companies, driven out of our knowledge economy, students would stay because there will be something really worthwhile for them to do. They love it here, but they’re enticed elsewhere,” Prof Corner adds.

4) Improve external relationships

The university has set itself lots of benchmarks for success in this area, which include increasing the number of commercial partnerships (with an increase in collaborative research and funding as a result) and developing a comprehensive suite of degree apprenticeships. These activities have too often been seen as a “result in itself”, Prof Corner says. “We are measured by government, but it doesn’t have that nuance. It does not focus enough on how much did it actually do for the local economy and what’s been the social impact.”

5) Build UK policy

The university wants its academics to spend more time engaging with, and building, UK policy; Nottingham recently launched a specialist University of Nottingham Institute of Policy and Engagement, headed by former Cabinet Office civil servant Stephen Meek, specifically to achieve this aim.

The university follows in the footsteps of the universities of Glasgow, Manchester and Bath in establishing a dedicated organisation for policy analysis and development.

“You know what? Why would academics know how to link with government and find the natural route for their findings to get into policy? There are skills in that,” Prof Corner explains. The new institute, which is based in London, will aim to find academics the opportunity to meet ministers in Westminster and position their findings “in a way civil servants will think is useful”, Prof Corner continues.

The biggest risk is obviously Brexit… there is no greater risk to research, science and discovery for the UK at the moment

What are the strategic challenges for Nottingham?

One of the strategy’s goals is also one of its greatest challenges. Growing the economy of Nottingham is no small task and Andy Naylor says his experiences of working in the south-east contrast sharply with his time in the East Midlands.

“The issue for us is that the capital to invest in startup companies based on university discoveries technologies is actually quite hard to come by,” Naylor says. “I’ve done a lot of work in Oxford and the south-east of England and there is a huge investor community and equity investment that’s looking for early stage technology companies, but that kind of ecosystem does not exist in the East Midlands.”

He says improving transportation links in Nottingham and the growing cost of living inside the ‘golden triangle’ is encouraging investors to look for better value for money.

Despite this, though, he says his main priority is to build a community of “serial entrepreneurs and highly experienced non-executive directors” who want to support the university’s companies. “People were tripping over themselves for the opportunity to work with an Oxford spin-out; that just isn’t the case up here,” Naylor reflects, “not yet, anyway.”

The university counts ibuprofen and the MRI scanner among its inventions; developing a similar “monster” in the next five to 10 years, with “impact on a global scale”, would help achieve this culture change, Naylor says.

Something the university has “started thinking about” is the timescale for investments. Given the challenging economic climate, investors are not ready to invest as quickly as, say, San Francisco, Prof Corner says, and Nottingham will need to stake more in its companies if it is to deliver their full impact.

“We could do more faster if there was more money around to invest. Venture capitalists are actually risk averse. They want to be assured of the potential outcome for investment,” she explains. “We’ve had some small amounts of money from government that we’ve been investing in that way. You can see how that, with some additional investment by the university, has created the success we’re seeing at the moment where we’re number two in the country for sales of shares. But that’s a long pipeline.”

What next?

“The biggest risk is obviously Brexit,” Prof Corner says, “there is no greater risk to research, science and discovery for the UK at the moment. We’ve had 40 years completely free to integrate and access partnerships with our greatest collaborators who are in Europe. That’s a risk and all the funding that we’ve accessed through European Union funding, at the moment, we don’t know where that’s going to land. And the impacts on attracting international talent. They’re not UK efforts on their own.”

Although Nottingham is “always busy developing and strengthening partnerships, only complex collaborations made things work”, Prof Corner explains.

“The regulatory environment within Europe, which means we all work to the same standards, means data flows, tissue samples, images – whatever you would like to talk about – flows freely. Just as we talk about supply chains for the car industry, that is exactly the same for science and research. We had a great example of somebody who tried to collaborate on a project that was in Chile and the complexities of trying to figure out how to share blood samples when we haven’t got the same regulations make it is really, really difficult.”

“You can’t just say the UK will have ‘different partnerships’ and not realise there’s all that complexity associated with it.”


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