2020 may be nearly over, but what have we learned about our sector?


While 2020 has been the most challenging year that many will remember, and hopefully need to overcome, we’ve learned a lot about our profession this year. 


We have learned that great researchers are the first port of call in a global emergency when novel solutions are required.  Researchers in every discipline have stepped up to bring forward different solutions.

Of course, we have also learned that versatile and resourceful knowledge exchange is vital for making that happen successfully. 

Without great KE, breakthrough research that has been rapidly developed to answer those big challenges would be much slower to make an impact. 

For example, UCL Business (UCLB), the commercialisation company for UCL that I am privileged to lead, operates an online licensing platform called e-lucid. And, as you may have seen, in the early weeks of the pandemic, the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering collaborated with the Mercedes Formula1 team and UCL Hospitals to launch the UCL-Ventura Breathing Aid. This brilliant piece of innovation helps treat patients with COVID-19 and reduces the need for ventilation, improving health outcomes. 

The Department for Health rapidly ordered 10,000, but because e-lucid was ready too, it was possible to make the UCL-Ventura design and manufacturing files freely available for licensing around the world in just a matter of days. To date, over 1980 licences have been downloaded worldwide. And to me, that shows the difference great KE can make.

We have seen researchers from every field step up to the challenge, and one of the best ways we can do that is through helping them to form new social ventures.
UCLB has offered a social ventures model for several years with successful examples, such as Mapping for Change, which helps communities to use mapping technologies to collaboratively explore problems in their area – such as air quality. The social ventures model has really come into its own in 2020, enabling researchers to find a commercialisation solution focused on maximising the societal impact of their work. 

Take the Collaborative Community against Coronavirus, a newly formed Community Interest Company (CIC). It is bringing together research excellence with bright business minds to trial antivirals that might make a difference in how we treat COVID-19 and future coronavirus pandemics. The CIC model means it’s been able to do this more rapidly, while bringing in stakeholders from across research, industry and civil society, all on a trusted basis. It’s a solution that UCLB has been working with UCL’s Translational Research Office to rapidly support, helping to make that CIC model possible.

In 2020, we’ve also seen how vital it is that our societies are resilient too, and that’s where social ventures can also shine. Millions of children worldwide have experienced at least a period of enforced e-learning this year, disrupting generations of traditional educational models and threatening to create disparities in access to educational resources. Researchers from UCL Institute of Education (IoE), one of the world’s leading education schools, have stepped up with new social ventures. Take Maths@Home, led by Dr Jo Van Herwegen, which is producing games to support mathematical development for children between 2-6. Solutions like this make the IoE’s research accessible across the globe, for more people than ever.

While I write of achievements by teams at UCL, I know every university and institution will have worked to deliver innovative impact this year.

All of these projects – from rapidly developed innovation to tackle COVID-19’s health impacts, to educational resources that help more children to get a better start to life – have been empowered by the hard work of KE practitioners. 

There’s no guarantee 2021 will be a sudden return to brighter days. While news on vaccines is outstanding, it will again take the application of research expertise to roll them out as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Every aspect of the recovery will take hard work and expertise. But, we know great minds will do their best. And great knowledge exchange practitioners will be there to help them make the biggest difference possible.

Dr Anne Lane, CEO of UCL Business