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How collaboration between universities and businesses can boost UK tech


Following Sir James Dyson’s plans to launch a new university to train up the engineering workforce, Graeme Malcolm OBE, CEO and co-founder of M Squared, discusses why Britain needs to encourage greater collaboration between business and universities.

Britain needs to encourage closer collaboration between universities and business – that’s where the greatest growth is going to come from.

Britain faces a massive skills gap: it’s estimated that over 750,000 new digital jobs will be created by 2020, and we are not currently in a position to be able to fill them.

Instead of the quick-fix, short term approach, Britain needs to look at the long term ways in which we can close the skills gap and fill the gaps left by the foreign acquisition of companies like ARM, which supply chip designs to every smartphone manufactured anywhere in the world.

The challenges

We can frame the challenge this way: UK technology is becoming rapidly more specialised and sophisticated, with expertise gathered in pockets. It is becoming less and less likely that businesses can find the skilled work they need unless there is a broad, strategic response to the changing face of industry.

Take my business – we need photonics specialists; the vast majority of recruits have PhDs in laser tech or quantum physics.

Business doesn’t wholly understand education, and universities cannot anticipate the demands of industry on their own. We need to see more businesses and universities coming together, creating intellectual property, bringing innovative products to market and making value for the UK.

The US and India

What’s behind America’s success in creating multi-billion-dollar tech companies? There are many reasons, but a trait of US tech is the proximity of technology hubs to world-class universities. Take MIT and Harvard, Stanford and CalTech: Boston and San Francisco both have universities with top tech specialisms on their doorsteps. The links between industry and universities allows for collaborations between the two.

Take India, too: Indian Institutes of Technology produce some of the most talented specialists in the sector, and are snapped up by the world’s leading tech firms. And they have gone from success to success – the CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Cognizant and NetApp are all Indian.

It is only through close ties with industry that universities will be able to train up graduates and produce the next generation of tech specialists. Instead of universities teaching code that hasn’t been used in Silicon Valley for years, we need these institutions to be working closely with businesses to identify what is at the cutting edge, and how they can upskill their students to get there.

UK hubs

Even within the UK, tech hubs with particular specialism have clustered organically around universities and the skills that they produce. It is there that the truly pioneering research and development is taking place.

Cambridge is one of the most established tech hubs in the UK and its strength has come from capitalising on the research of the university and its students.

It is, for example, where venture capitalist and entrepreneur Mike Lynch founded Cambridge Neurodynamics and Autonomy after completing his PhD. Autonomy was sold to Hewlett-Packard in 2011 for over $11 billion.

Oxford, another point in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of British university cities – the third point being London – is home to the Oxford Sciences Innovation investment fund. This was launched last year to finance university spin-outs after a number of these businesses launched in just the last decade floated on the stock market.

Glasgow’s laser hub has helped us contribute to quantum technologies and innovative disease therapies, all through collaboration between the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. It is these kinds of innovations that are at the heart of how Britain can fuel a growth that is really beneficial to society.

Britain needs to create more than just apps that top the iTunes chart. We need to go one level deeper into the supply chain and build innovations that have high-growth potential. Owning intellectual property ensures these companies spin out into larger companies, creating more jobs and pumping more money into the UK economy.

The government can treat industry and education separately, but a joint strategy has repeatedly proven to be the way to achieve tech sector growth and innovation credentials in recent years.

What’s your take on the subject? Let us know in the comments section below.