By Ian Ferris, Innovation Director at Brunel University London’s Co-Innovate Journeys programme
The contribution of small and medium-sized enterprises to the UK is undisputed, comprising more than half the totals of both private-sector turnover and jobs. Universities are themselves engines of growth and innovation in the UK, and, with the right type of partnership, can significantly increase the output – and reduce the risk – of innovation activity.
However, while large organisations and businesses can engage relatively easily with universities, SMEs seem to struggle, resulting in missed opportunities on both sides. SMEs face particular structural and commercial challenges in innovation, and so, in theory, collaborating with universities makes perfect sense. Many of them, however, simply don’t know where to start.
Brunel University London launched the Co-Innovate Journeys programme, jointly funded by the university and the EU through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), to provide a gateway for SMEs to the resources and specialist expertise within the university. Because there can often be a multiplicity of barriers, we have developed a range of collaboration models, so we can provide tailored support according to the needs of a particular business.
A report commissioned by the EU identified both internal and external barriers to innovation within small to medium-sized organisations. External barriers, such as financial constraints, or shortage of skilled labour, are easy for firms to self-diagnose, and Co-Innovate Journeys offers the opportunity to supplement internal teams by collaborating with students or academics. However, internal barriers to innovation – such as lacking the right knowledge and experience of innovation methodology – can be much harder for a company to identify internally, let alone solve, and so the Co-Innovate Journeys platform has mechanisms built in to surmount these.
The first port of call for an individual client company is one of Co-Innovate’s Innovation Directors, who work with the business to define the issue, and the appropriate pathway. The Innovation Director remains central to the collaboration, functioning as the conduit between the university and the client company, with ultimate responsibility for the delivery of the project.
If a company has an idea for an innovation project but lacks the resources to action it, collaborating with Brunel students can help them to develop the concept to help make it commercially viable.
Many of the SMEs we work with struggle at this point in the innovation cycle, because developing a concept takes time and focus which are impractical in the hectic environment of an SME’s day-to-day operations. Working with one of our final-year students offers a fresh perspective and an injection of new thinking – plus a defined timeline, tied to the academic year. Because the student works at Brunel, the project is insulated from the shifting priorities and deadlines within the client company.
There is a wealth of data which suggests that one area where SMEs fall down is product definition, a critical step which can incur considerable cost if taken to an external consultancy. Working with Brunel Design and Computer Sciences students, with close academic supervision, can introduce an element of user-centric design thinking and visualisation to provide some proper parameters. Business strategy matters, too, and this can be another area that SMEs neglect. Do they have the correct business model to maximise the potential of the project? Is the marketing strategy defined? Again, this can be expensive and time-consuming. Collaboration with Brunel Business School students provides the type of fresh approach to these business issues.
The third crucial element of Co-Innovate Journeys is the option to collaborate directly with academics. This can solve two intertwined internal barriers: access to finance, and finding the right human resources. Having a leading academic on the team can fill the skills gap – and can make all the difference to a funding application. To cover academic costs, we are able to provide Brunel Innovation Vouchers, worth up to £5,000 of Academic time, to fund the early stages of the collaboration – in practice, often the application process.
To challenge any perceptions among SMEs that universities are not sufficiently grounded in their commercial reality, we also run Innovation Skills workshops, bringing together a number of companies, based on a common theme – digital marketing, finance and fundraising, intellectual property and exporting have been recent topics. Each workshop programme is split into a number of sessions, comprising 12 hours, reflecting the requirements. We also bring in professional practitioners to contribute alongside university staff, to balance academic thinking with real-world experience, and to provide pragmatic input.
Engaging with and supporting SMEs is critical for universities. It provides a source of revenue and government funding, further helping universities drive their local economies and bring benefit to their local communities. It also gives students access to vital commercial experience and enhanced employment opportunities. But these partnerships are equally critical for SMEs themselves because, as we know, they need access to specialist support to enable them to innovate successfully. Because of their huge diversity in size, sector and culture, a one-size-fits-all model does not deliver value. The Co-Innovate Journeys model has flexibility built in, to enable and de-risk the innovation process, and to provide SMEs with the capacity to compete with larger businesses.
Article reproduced with permission from the National Centre of Universities and Business: an independent and not-for-profit membership organisation that promotes, develops and supports university–business collaboration across the UK – and of which Brunel University London is a member. The original article is available from the NCUB blog.