Scientific research relies on collaboration, between academics across the world, between big and small groups of people, and between companies and universities. Many people’s first thoughts of companies involved in academia will be large multinational corporations, such as pharmaceutical or aerospace companies. However mutually beneficial relationships exist between smaller companies and academia. Scientific spin out companies, such as Oxford Nanopore Technologies, Theta Technologies or Reinnervate, are one way research is expanded from an idea held by researchers at a university and expanded into a commercial product or service. However, there are many other ways and reasons for scientists collaborating with small companies.
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are independent businesses with up to 249 people, they represent over 99% of all UK and EU businesses, and 45-50% of turnover and employment. But why would researchers be interested in involvement with SMEs? Access to unique intellectual property and innovation in the SMEs, as well as access to funding targeted at fostering research led projects in SMEs. Innovate UK, support growth by enabling and funding innovative opportunities. SMEs can access this support through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), a three-way partnership between a graduate, academic institution and a business. These KTPs can last between 12 months and 3 years, and provide financial support for academics to monitor the graduate’s work. KTP projects lead to an average of 2 papers per project, and are attractive to SMEs as they only fund 33% of the project cost.
Impact of research outside academia is becoming increasingly important to identify as impact case studies form a part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), making many sources of funding contingent on providing a strong case for the wider impact of the research. Work with innovation focused SMEs can provide a focus for research impact in engagement and economic terms. For example, a REF case study highlighting the impact of spintronics research in the development of non-contact sensors, through a spin out company, Salunda.