KCMC is a member of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), one of several government-funded organisations that help accelerate academic research to marketable products through innovation. The Catapults themselves form a connection between academia and industry, supporting the crucial innovation stage of technology development, which takes promising research from universities and develops it to make it commercially viable. Improved connection between organisations, particularly in the fields of materials chemistry and materials science, is needed to ensure successful translation of academic research to innovation-ready products or processes for Catapult development. This translation is as much a literal one between individuals as a figurative one between academia and Catapults: universities often have one goal for their research whilst innovators have another. Aligning these two contributors and facilitating communication and better understanding between them, via a team of experienced ‘translators’, is necessary in order to help more research progress to commercialisation and ensure the best possible return on UK research investment.
The Dowling Report recognised the role of Catapults and their interaction with universities in the innovation landscape but did not make any specific recommendations on how to improve translation from universities, through innovation & scale-up in Catapults to the launch of commercial products and processes.
The University-Catapult gap
In the UK, the process of bringing new technologies to market is often initiated in universities. The UK Catapult Network connects academia with industry, facilitating the development of academic research into scaled-up, commercially viable products and processes. Government funding frequently facilitates this pipeline and has played a vital role in driving UK innovation forward, but this investment is not achieving its full potential. It is possible for projects to fall through the ‘gap’ between universities and Catapults, resulting in missed opportunities for innovation from which the UK does not see a return.
Within a university environment, the end goal of a research project is generally the publication of a paper and a contribution to wider scientific understanding. The information and data required to publish scientific research often doesn’t match up with what is required to optimise and scale up a product or process. Catapults need a large bank of data to ensure a discovery has the potential to scale-up and progress. This data allows those in the Catapults to understand how robust the discovery is, showing how many variables can be changed to improve cost effectiveness and commercial viability without compromising on functionality. This data is fundamental to the process of innovation, but not to academic research, resulting in a difference in focus between the two types of organisation. Whilst individuals in both types of organisation are experts in their respective roles, they aren’t unified in their motivation, often creating a disconnect between the two fundamental stages.
The need for improved translation
Translation is the process by which a discovery made within a university moves into the scale-up and innovation process, often in a Catapult. It is a vital step in the progression of potential new technologies, but the process of translating academic research to innovation is not well developed. The current system relies on ‘Translation Project Teams’ to determine the appropriate methodology and collect the additional information and knowledge needed to facilitate the translation from discovery to innovation. These project teams may not have previous experience of translation projects, so develop skills and understanding of the process as they go. Unfortunately, the full benefit of the knowledge and understanding gained is often lost at the end of the translation project when the teams disband.
This lack of effective translation means that many promising discoveries do not reach the innovation stage in the Catapults, and therefore do not progress to market, decreasing the return on investment for the UK. By recognising translation as a crucial stage in product and process development with the potential to enhance UK industry development, it will be possible to develop solutions to meet this potential. Bridging the gap between academia and the Catapults will improve the efficiency of translation and allow more technologies to progress through the pipeline, increasing the benefit the UK gets from its investment in both university-based discovery and Catapult infrastructure and expertise.
Building a bridge
Universities and Catapults have been created and developed for different purposes – universities for research and discovery and Catapults for innovation and scale-up. By recognising that each organisation therefore has different drivers and different measures of success, it is not surprising that they do not always mesh seamlessly. In order to improve translation, a bridge must be built to better link academic discovery to innovation, and ultimately bring more unique products and processes to market. There are three fundamental areas that can be developed in order to improve connection between academia and the Catapults:
- Increasing awareness in both types of organisation through education
- Within universities, this will include awareness of what is needed for successful translation, and within Catapults, education on how to work with universities, thereby creating a deeper understanding and trust between the two groups.
- Capturing and sharing of best practice in translation
- This would involve a deliberate activity to capture, retain and share knowledge gained from successful translation projects, benefitting all future projects.
- Recognition of the financial support required for a successful translation project
- Such projects involve assets, equipment and dedicated teams, the cost of which is often underestimated by universities. Funding is needed to support translation projects.
Funding for translation would involve investment in ‘translation professionals’ who would facilitate the steps outlined above. Included in this would be ‘translation managers’ and ‘translation project scientists’. The former would play a role in awareness and education at both sides of the bridge, with the ability to move across as required, ensuring both organisations are working to the same expectations. The latter would be involved in conducting additional testing and increasing understanding during the scale up process, ensuring discoveries are innovation-ready. This people-based system would support communication and feedback, allowing universities and Catapults to gain better understanding of each other and enhancing future projects.
Targeted funding to drive UK innovation
A crucial aspect to consider when directing investment for translation is identifying which areas should be prioritised to provide the best return on investment. Universities that don’t already have connections with Catapult centres offer the greatest potential for improvement. Building bridges between organisations that aren’t already linked should therefore be the focus of initial funding efforts, providing the greatest increase in technology progression.
It is clear that tackling the translation challenge will initially require increased investment into the technology pipeline. If this funding can be used to build a successful bridge between academia and the Catapults, it will ultimately improve the efficiency of UK research and development and allow more discoveries to progress to commercialisation. This would increase return on investment for government research and development funding, boosting UK industry and driving a virtuous cycle of increased funding providing increased returns.