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Issue 468, 4 June 2001

University’s third arm gives helping hand to bring greater economic prosperity and regional regeneration

A changing world is forcing change upon higher education as universities look beyond their traditional roles of teaching and pure research for ways to stimulate change in society and commerce through the extensive intellectual and physical resources at their disposal. The University of Leeds is responding creatively to these changes through the formulation of a ‘third arm’ to enable the transfer of knowledge to, with and between business and the wider community.

The third arm concept is a long-term vision of synergistic relationships between businesses, education and public bodies to increase economic prosperity and entrepreneurial activity within the University itself and far beyond.

Not all of this is new, as Pro-Vice Chancellor for information-technology and communications, Professor David Hogg explains: "Activities which we would now label as ‘third arm’ have been going on successfully at the University for decades - in fact other universities look at Leeds with some envy for our success in this area."Thirty years ago, we were the first to set up a company — Leeds Innovations — to help academics commercialise their ideas, and we currently attract more industrial funding for research than any other university in the UK.

 

Bringing it all together: Pro-Vice-Chancellor for IT and communications Professor David Hogg

"The new strategy is simply the glue which will bring all of this together and promote new initiatives under one umbrella. The government has made this a priority, and there are funds available which can be best accessed on a corporate level."

A wide range of activities fall under the strategy, ranging from a ground-breaking agreement with venture capital group Forward to provide 20m for new start-up ventures, to government funded initiatives through the White Rose consortium developing enterprise elements for the undergraduate curriculum. The University has excellent resources for the third arm vision, from its research activity, its business school, lifelong learning through the school of continuing education, world-wide links with universities, and on-going relationships with business and industry.

Psychology lecturer Dr Peter Stratton is not new to the game, having set up his company, The Psychology Business, over ten years ago. Using a research technique pioneered in his department, he has worked with many of the FTSE 100 providing market research and investigating customer activity and changes in organisational cultures.

He acknowledges the difference which the third arm strategy can make. "There’s been a major culture change within the University over the last few years, but it is a gradual process," he said. "We can’t just flick a switch and change overnight, but at least we’re moving in the right direction by beginning to celebrate the people who are successful in this area of work."

Dr Stratton is a member of the ‘champions network’ chaired by earth sciences Professor Rob Knipe. The network allows academics with a strong track record of work with industry to sit down with co-ordinators from companies already forging ties with the University, to discuss ways of promoting collaboration.

Professor Knipe’s rock deformation research team has won awards helping industry in worldwide oil exploration and production.

"Many of my research team are salaried through industry funding, which gives continuity to the work we carry out," he said. "Working with industry also opens out the kind of research we do, as companies provide the data — often too expensive for us to collect in any other set-up — and then we analyse it and pass back the information they require. It also speeds up research, as companies need results in months, not the years it takes for pure research to filter through to an industrial level."

Chemistry professor Tony Johnson is also part of the champions network. He has thirty years’ experience of working with industry and has recently set up a spin-off company through Leeds Innovations, Gluco Ltd, to exploit a new industrial adhesive.

"As a polymer chemist, most of my research is applied, and I find that real industrial problems are often far harder to solve than those we dream up as academics," he said. "Money gained from commercial activity can prove very useful as it is more flexible than the usual grants. Applied research also provides good experience for young researchers, because they get to see the process from the bottom up."

The key to third arm is ensuring a smooth relationship between those outside the University with the needs to be met, and the academics who can provide the solution or the skills required. Many of the new initiatives facilitate this relationship, taking away from academics the administrative and developmental burden . Business development managers work with departments to identify potential areas of collaboration with industry, and an institute for corporate learning is starting to build long-term relationships with big companies with a view to supplying all their needs in terms of applied research, consultancy and training. The ‘veteran’ of third arm, Leeds Innovations, hopes to raise the number of new companies it helps establish to ten per year, and plans to identify a further eighty to a hundred commercial opportunities annually.

 

Building links: (above back) business development managers John Hulbert, Joanna Watt, Laurence Hogg, John Slater and Alan Batby; (above front) director of Leeds Innovations Angus Ferguson, and business development managers Nicola Broughton, Lorraine Ferris and Andrew Dundas; (left) Tony Johnson

 

 

Professor David Hogg acknowledges that this kind of work won’t suit everyone. "There are concerns that third arm initiatives will place impossible extra burdens on already hard-working academics, but if we are smart about how we use our time, third arm can work to enhance other activities.

"It adds solidity to teaching as students really respond to learning first-hand about applied research which lecturers themselves have done.

"Third arm has the potential to bring in additional income and resources, as well as added stimulation and motivation. Our aims are high, but well within our grasp — to be a national leader in knowledge transfer by 2005, maintain and increase our lead on other higher education institutions, and be a major source of entrepreneurial expertise, creativity, flexible learning and general business support on a local, regional and national level."


The aims and elements of the third arm strategy are …

... to increase the quality and scope of applied research to enhance the University’s overall research capabilities, through:

The strategic and applied research forum — or ‘champions network’ — brings together academics and people working in industry who are already experienced in collaborative projects., and aims to raise the profile of applied research.

The research support unit, which offers support and advice to staff about sources of income, financial administration, submission of final reports and protection of the results of their research.

... to identify the full range of creative ideas within the University, and maximise the return they produce through licensing, consultancy, company formation and partnerships with industry, via the work of:

Leeds Innovations, which has created thirty spin-off companies, many licensing agreements, and has an annual turnover of more than 6.5m

The Forward Innovation fund, which has provided 20m to support spin-off companies from University research.

Business development managers, who identify potential areas for commercial opportunity, and help build links between academics and outside organisations.

The White Rose technology seedcorn fund, which has 6m to invest in new high-tech spin-off companies arising from research at the Leeds, Sheffield and York.

The teaching company scheme, a government-funded initiative running for 25 years, partnering companies which have specific problems to solve to universities with the skills and knowledge to help them. (See Noticeboard.)

The White Rose Faraday initiative, which creates links with the packaging industry with seven projects already under way

The White Rose Biotechnology Consortium, which develops technology transfer between universities and industry, with a 250,000 DTI grant.

KiMERA, developing knowledge management systems to co-ordinate and support third arm activity

… to help the development of ‘learning commpanies/ organisations’ and equip people of all ages with the work skills required to participate fully in a modern, knowledge-based economy, through:

The Institute for Corporate Learning, building close relationships with industry and the public sector, promoting University education, learning and staff development. The Institute is already working with the BBC, Yorkshire Bank, Magnet, Wakefield Council and others.

The skills and employability unit, providing work placements for students to improve their future employment prospects.

The school of continuing education providing part-time courses for people in work to develop their skills and knowledge.

... to create a culture of entrepreneurship at the University, both amongst academic staff and students, through:

The White Rose centre for enterprise, improving entrepreneurial skills amongst academics and students in science and engineering, through teaching and learning projects and curriculum development.

... to influence and contribute to the economic development and regeneration of the city and the region, through:

The city and regional office, working with local agencies and companies to make practical contributions to regional and local economic development.

Leeds Innovation Centre, providing start-up business accommodation.

The Thorpe Park Knowledge Economy campus, a new initiative between developers Thorpe Park (Leeds) Ltd and the University, providing business space with the benefit of a close and effective relationship with the University.



 
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