In this series we ask key figures in the region and from our core sectors to share their insights.
We spoke to Dr Joe Marshall, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) about the power of collaboration and the future opportunities it will deliver.
What role does the NCUB play in driving collaboration between universities and business?
We’re the collective voice of our members, helping to shape and promote collaboration between universities and leading businesses across the UK. We operate to inform the debate and provide guidance and support in a regional context, UK-wide and ultimately on a global stage.
We inform, by providing evidence-based data on the latest trends and developments; we influence both policy and practice, by demonstrating how quick and responsive universities can be to the needs of businesses and we aim to inspire, by telling compelling stories about the incredible work being undertaken and successes they have delivered.
What are the outcomes of those collaborations?
An estimated £4 billion a year net contribution to the UK economy – a figure that keeps rising as more and more businesses are inspired by the success stories of other companies within their sector or in their wider business networks.
We’re working with more than 150 universities across the country and provide a brokering tool: “Konfer” for small and medium-sized business, designed to help them access the many research-based opportunities available to innovate, develop new products and grow their business. There are over 72,000 companies currently digitally-profiled on that platform and we’re able to precision-broker their needs to match the most relevant skills, services and expertise from our member universities.
How is that working in Leeds City Region?
Leeds is a really popular destination for students to come back to – either if they’ve studied there, then worked in London or elsewhere; or if they’ve studied in another city, then returned to work in Leeds. Affordable houses, good schools and quality of life are big attractions and mean there is a strong skills and talent pool for businesses to draw upon.
That translates into an openness and appetite for innovation, particularly in the digital health and analytics space, where Leeds is really strong.
The City Region’s participation in MIT REAP – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme – was particularly important in demonstrating the role collaboration can play in local economic growth.
What more can universities do to drive innovation through collaboration?
Universities see this now not as something they have to do, but something they really want to do. They are pushing the collaborative working agenda across a much wider range of disciplines. STEM subjects can often dominate, but the role of the arts, social sciences and humanities are increasingly being recognised as important for business development.
Companies that want to better understand human behaviour and how that impacts the building and development of their teams and data programmers, for example, are recruiting philosophy students to provide expertise on the significance of language in the programmes they create.
Universities can also seek to retain the best graduate talent across vital disciplines, through their Masters and Continuing Professional Development programmes – these are absolutely key to creating the innovators and business leaders of tomorrow.
What else can businesses do to give collaborative working even more momentum?
Those businesses who are open to working with universities are changing the narrative, based on their success.
Companies who haven’t yet tried it out, or who have worked with universities in the past and might have the perception that they are slow and unresponsive, will find a highly engaged and supportive service, considerably evolved in terms of practical accessibility and relevance to their needs.
With access to some of the most brilliant academic minds in their sector, businesses should think about where they would most like to introduce new ideas, new thinking, and new processes.
Business lifecycles – from developing a new product, commercialising it and achieving market share – used to be measured in years or even decades, but the rate of change across the UK economy means that is often now a matter of months.
With the impact of digitisation and the move to net zero driving further acceleration in innovation, countries around the world are recognising the importance of R&D in becoming a genuinely advanced knowledge economy.
What part do communities such as Nexus play?
I look back at the launch of Nexus, when I spoke to a number of start-ups: one business owner was receiving his PhD later that day and was pitching to a group of investors the next. It is a dynamic space for innovators and a place where they can sit alongside other companies who are on the same journey.
It’s also important in terms of providing opportunities for students to work within those businesses, either part-time or as a graduate hire, perhaps as part of their PhD or through a range of internship options.
In terms of showcasing and promoting the value of collaborative working, spaces like Nexus are invaluable. Purposed for co-creation and co-development of ideas, it is more than a symbolic building – based on the University of Leeds campus and reaching out into the city centre – it acts as a beacon, welcoming businesses and giving them the opportunity to work with some of the brightest minds to improve their products and services and solve problems: the key to successful innovation and growth.
Innovation spaces tend to be more purposeful and deliberative, aligning their services to the projects and priorities which are predominant in their location. The NCUB plays a vital role in that place-based innovation, previously supporting places with their science and innovation audits and data to help match academic support to specific business and societal needs.
Are there any events or initiatives businesses should particularly look out for this year?
Check out our Konfer brokerage tool – it harvests information from a wide range of universities, so business owners can search for very specific requirements within their sector and receive relevant information on facilities, talent and funding. They should also look out for NCUB’s annual State of the Relationship reports – State of the Relationship 2022 report, which act as a barometer on trends in collaboration and our sector-specific quarterly showcases, where we share case studies which demonstrate what can be achieved.
Successive Governments have confirmed what those success stories clearly demonstrate: collaborative working is fundamental to our economy and society. The future of the UK will be defined by ideas and innovation.
Explore more insights from our ‘the view from here’ series: