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Building “Science Supply Chains” will Help Universities Catapult Research into Successful Commercialisation

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Building “Science Supply Chains” will Help Universities Catapult Research into Successful Commercialisation

James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester and commercialisation lead for 2D Materials within the Henry Royce Institute, believes building science supply chains will help bring academia and businesses ever closer as they compete for government funding to meet the grand challenges ahead.

The coming together of universities and businesses should be the perfect partnership – but too often it has been a marriage of convenience.

In a way, having to make compromises is not too surprising. There are a number of cultural differences and organisational barriers between higher education and the commercial world.

Essentially, universities and commercial organisations are seeking different outputs. Business leaders work in a transactional world and require market-ready products while academics earn reputation and funding for their excellent research outputs and highly cited publications.

Challenges can also include finding ‘quality time’ to have initial exploratory conversations to define the benefits of working together and establishing shared goals. Or it can be the basic lack of trust over issues such as intellectual property and patents.

However, with national government firmly focused on meeting priority economic and social challenges – partly through schemes like the Industry Challenge Strategy Fund – universities and businesses are going to have to work even harder to deliver on expectations.

The answers we seek can’t all be science – nor can it all be commercial. A number of excellent partnership schemes already exist to bridge this gap, from Knowledge Transfer Partnerships to the more recent Prosperity Partnership projects.

On an even grander scale is the Faraday Institution which is looking to radically develop the UK’s capability in battery technology. This ambitious university-business partnership has been funded in part through the government’s £246 million investment in battery technology as part of the Industrial Strategy.

For me, a sustainable business model for the future will be based on building embedded supply chains that run seamlessly across academia and business networks.

An example that is close to home at The University of Manchester is the unique science supply chain that has been established to support the Graphene@Manchester ecosystem, which spans the industry readiness levels ie from scientific breakthroughs, to the engineering of new technology and ultimately, supporting the delivery of market-ready products.

For us, this journey begins in research groups based in the University and can be nurtured in the National Graphene Institute, home to pioneering research in 2D materials. When the science is mature enough we will expect it to move into the newly opened Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC). The GEIC will proactively engage with business partners in key areas where 2D materials could prove transformational, including lightweighting, energy storage and membrane technology.

These flagship facilities are also part of a wider community including the various Catapult  Centres and the Manchester-based Henry Royce Institute, a national alliance of UK universities and organisations focused on applied research in advanced materials.

What is important to recognise is that this science supply chain model will not necessarily facilitate a single flow of outputs. A project could hit a setback along the industry readiness journey and have to retrace its steps as the problem is unpicked and looked at again. (Similar to an unlucky counter having to slide backwards in a game of snakes-and-ladders and then having to start its climb all over again).

This, however, is the strength of the supply chain model because the linear relationships between all stakeholders, whether academic or more commercially-focused, provide shared interest in the final output.

In the anticipation of the grand challenges ahead, I am confident the supply chain approach will encourage an exciting, efficient and highly productive framework that will allow academics and businesses to work with ever greater trust and genuine compatibility. As the GEIC gears up and begins to engage more proactively with external partners we look to put the theory to the test and deliver a 2D materials advantage to both our regional and national economies.

To find out more about advanced materials at The University of Manchester visit:
www.manchester.ac.uk/research/beacons/advanced-materials/