Future 50: How the appliance of science can help your business grow in new ways
- Credit: Colorfix
East Anglia is home to some of the world’s leading scientists – so how can business benefit from their research? Future 50 companies found out.
Norwich Research Park is a testament to the way the power of science can be harnessed for business. With a footprint equivalent to 435 football pitches joined together, the Park is home to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, the University of East Anglia and four leading research institutes – the Quadram Institute, the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury’s laboratory and the Earlham Institute.
It is also home to 150 businesses and, if viewed collectively, is the biggest employer in Norfolk, providing more than 15,000 jobs. As the name of the park makes clear, this all comes from research. How can other businesses access the expertise and the opportunities represented by Norwich Research Park? Members of the Future 50 programme found out in a session hosted by park chief executive David Parfrey.
Why is research so important? “If you spend all of your life doing things as you do them today, you will disappear. If you are not thinking about the next product or the next idea, you will go out of fashion,” Mr Parfrey explained. “Evolution is the new stability.”
How much should you invest in research? James Gardiner is a co-founder of Future 50 member Studious Digital Education – and also an associate professor at the UEA Business School. “A figure of 10% is quite often quoted,” he said. “But it really depends on the sector. As a start-up, at Studious we spend about 30% of our revenue on research and innovation, because we're developing our products from scratch.”
The university has a team to support academics to engage and work with businesses, led by Julie Schofield. “Sometimes for businesses, it's very hard to understand what's going on and how they can engage with that,” she explains. "We've got a lot of expertise and facilities. It's about how can we work with businesses to facilitate that knowledge exchange, to take that research and apply it for the benefit of the economy, for society and for our cultural development.”
Some businesses approach UEA because they have a problem, or because they are looking to innovate – often to become more environmentally friendly or to strip cost out.
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“It's also about engaging with the community to see what is happening and then, actually through the networking, there's almost a eureka moment and we can facilitate interactions," says Ms Schofield.
Research can be funded by grants, mainly through UK Research and Innovation for pure-knowledge research. “That's creating the all-new thinking, paving the way for things we don't know about yet,” explains Mr Parfrey. "To get that you need to buddy up with a body that can kind of apply for this grant - so the first place to go is the university, to find a collaborative opportunity.
“In business, if you're looking for that innovation-led research, then go to Innovate UK. There's a lot of money available to businesses to look at innovation and research,” he says.
“Don't think it's not for you – that it's only for organisations that have 50 people in a bid-writing department,” advises Mr Gardiner. “It’s for everybody and they've transformed the bid process so it is actually accessible to the majority of organisations. We've done very well working with the UEA and they've been phenomenally supportive of us - so approach University first.”
“At UEA we have something called the Innovation Growth Mentoring Programme," says Ms Schofield. “It’s to help businesses that have never applied for funding, whether that's through Innovate UK or UK RI.
“There's also the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, which look at helping businesses that want to work with academics where their expertise is aligned with the strategic ambitions of a business. The university would work with you as a business to build the links with the academics,” she concludes. “A knowledge transfer partnership is a very well-funded programme and it’s just one example of a funding stream the university can help a business access.”
“One of the first things I learned in business was a team is stronger than its parts. Collaboration is the way forward,” says Mr Parfrey. “So look for those opportunities to collaborate.”