ANALYSIS & OPINION
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Ties that bind

Matthew Wasley, knowledge transfer manager of photonics at Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network, says support is at hand for businesses wanting to collaborate

A recent report by the European organisation Photonics21 showed that while the European photonics industry, on the whole, grew less than the world market, imaging and machine vision succeeded in keeping pace. The ability of the industry to innovate has been key to this, but the pace of technological change is rapid and European industry must continue to innovate to stay ahead.

There is plenty of evidence to show that Europe holds its own on innovation. Eleven of the top 20 innovating economies in the Global Innovation Index came from Europe, including the top three (Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden). In addition, the EU Industrial R&D Scoreboard, which tracks the 2,500 companies worldwide investing the largest sums in R&D, found that 567 EU companies accounted for 26 per cent of the total R&D expenditure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the R&D Scoreboard also found that these companies were actively engaged in scientific publications in a wide range of fields, often in collaboration with academia. The Scoreboard report noted that there is a positive correlation between a firm’s R&D expenditure and the number of publications it has contributed to, which also holds true for patents.

Large companies, it seems, see the value in collaboration to drive innovation. Academic collaboration is a part of this, as is collaboration with other business, notably around supply chains. But what about SMEs, how can they access the same facilities as larger companies? How can they find the expertise they need to bring innovative new products to market? Fortunately, help is at hand.

There is support across Europe for companies looking to collaborate. In the UK for example, there are a number of organisations playing different roles in supporting companies across the innovation landscape. So many in fact, that there is danger of confusion. A Government study, The Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations, published in July 2015, found that the public-funded support for collaboration was too complex, and recommended that the interface between business and academia be made as simple as possible, even if the underlying details were complex – a process referred to as ‘hiding the wiring’.

My own organisation, Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), plays a key role in this process as part of the UK’s innovation support landscape. KTN runs collaboration events across the UK, connecting business to business and business to academia. We have a phrase within the company: ‘connecting the unusual suspects’. This means that we are interested not only in supporting collaboration across an industry vertical, but also collaborating across different sectors.

For example, a laser manufacturer came to us with a method of imaging plant collagen, but had no connections into agriculture. We were able to connect them to a 
crop specialist and support them to set up an R&D collaboration.

The Enterprise Europe Network is another important part of the innovation landscape, working across Europe and beyond. The network offers support and advice to businesses across Europe and helps them make the most of the opportunities in the European Union. The Enterprise Europe Network is made up of close to 600 partner organisations in more than 40 countries, promoting competitiveness and innovation at a local level in Europe and beyond. The network provides innovation support to companies, and has a mechanism to search for partners in other countries at a range of commercial readiness levels from applied research up to companies looking for distributors.

Very often R&D collaboration is thought of as university-to-business, but this is by no means the full story – the business-to-business relationship is an important one. Mark Williamson, managing director of Stemmer Imaging, said that very often the most successful collaborations are with the company’s customers:

‘We’ve found that the most successful relationships with our customers are where we’ve developed a genuine partnership. For example, we might work with a company which has a great product but very limited machine vision experience, and we can collaborate with them to develop and integrate the imaging technology.’

Like many companies though, Stemmer Imaging does also engage with the academic base. Williamson said: ‘We need talented individuals in our business, and universities are an important part of this. For example, we support Masters students and offer industrial placements.’

Williamson’s comments reflect the fact that companies work with universities in several different ways, from recruitment to R&D, licensing and ongoing relationships between the universities and their alumni.

At the research and development level, it’s important that the parties understand each other’s drivers and motivations.

Academics need to undertake new research and publish, whereas often the company partner is looking for a near-term solution and confidentiality is necessary. However, evidence from the UK’s innovation funding body suggests that there is an overall advantage for projects with academic partners. It seems these different perspectives can be useful though in finding new solutions to problems.

The pace of change is rapid in tech industries and imaging and machine vision is no exception.

The industry has already seen many changes, and as new developments such as artificial intelligence and even quantum imaging have the potential to drive huge change, it’s more important than ever for business to 
collaborate in order to innovate and succeed. Help is available across Europe for collaboration and business must grasp the opportunity this presents.

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