In our autumn blog series , we’re asking KE experts on the industry side why their companies choose to work with UK Universities. What makes the UK attractive? And how do companies choose amongst universities to partner with? Rolls-Royce has a history of research collaborations in the UK that spans 60 years, and they’ve honed their approach to a science. Mark Jefferies and Kate Barnard talk about the company’s move to a strategic partnering approach, and how they’re able to maintain relationships at so many UK University Technology Centers.
About Mark Jefferies, Chief of University Research Liaison at Rolls-Royce
Mark Jefferies is a chartered engineer and Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society with responsibility for the worldwide academic research partnerships for the Rolls-Royce group. This includes 31 University Technology Centres (UTCs), engaging hundreds of researchers and more than 500 PhD students.
About Kate Barnard, Engineering Programme Manager, University Research at Rolls-Royce
Kate Barnard is a chartered engineer and a professional program manager. She has responsibility at Rolls-Royce for maintaining and developing strategic and academic partnerships; she is also the interface for government agencies. Rolls-Royce has a global network of research centres. Besides 14 other research centres internationally, the company has invested in 31 strategic UTCs, each addressing a key technology. Nineteen of these are in the UK at fourteen different universities. These UTCs have long-term partnerships with Rolls-Royce, joint governance and a large team of academics, research fellows, research assistants, technicians and students working on key engineering technology projects.
An excellent look at Rolls-Royce’s university partnership strategy is available in Mark Jefferies and Kate Barnard’s chapter in the recently-released Strategic Industry-University Partnership, edited by Lars Frølund and Max F. Riedel (July 2018).
Rolls-Royce has a long history of working in the UK. Is that by design or did it grow up organically?
We have a network around the world, but there is a focus on the UK that harks back to the company’s British origins. In the ‘80s, when we approached collaboration, we were more ad hoc, and we worked via lots of personal connections. But we found that it’s difficult to argue for investment if you don’t have critical mass. And you risk having have a single point of failure. So, there was a strategic decision to adopt a centre of excellence approach, helping us to concentrate investment in a range of large-scale infrastructure. We definitely made a conscious decision to take that centralised path. There are good reasons for having a distributed approach, but we chose a centre of excellence approach for the majority of our academic research. We still do some ad hoc research with universities, but it’s minor.
The UK is a very good place to do science. The country has an excellent standing in the international research community. We have the opportunity here to work with some of the best institutions in the world. And even better, we have a history of collaboration with these institutions that in some cases goes back for something like 60 years.
We’re also lucky to be in a supportive ecosystem. The UK government invests in science. They want to see companies in manufacturing succeed because there is a recognition that if you facilitate that, you also help SMEs, supply chain companies, education, and general university research. The whole country benefits.
Your UTCs are across all different tiers and types of universities in the UK. How did you make those choices?
The differences in universities are difficult to generalise, and the majority we’ve been working with for decades. They all have different “personalities.” Some are more academic; most are collaborative; some are focused on fundamental questions; some are more applied. Some universities are equipped to manage big facilities very well and some are not. We try to play each one to their strengths. That is the advantage of having been involved with these UK players for so long.
We’ve taken a metrics approach as well. Amongst many other things we’ve gone back and looked at things with SciVal (a research performance and benchmarking tool) and which gives additional confidence that the people we’ve chosen to work with are top in their field. Though, we know that we can’t just pick and choose researchers only on academic metrics; there is a broader and more balanced assessment, which also includes the environment in which they operate for example.
We try to take a holistic view of the benefit and the gain for each project. Sometimes it’s a straightforward: is the technology any good? We track how we recruit people, patents etc. But, we’re also looking at the university responsiveness. Do they want to work with us? Can we help them with their interests? Does our work align with the university strategy? For planning and evaluation, a good place to start is the University Partnership Canvas, discussed in Strategic Industry-University Partnerships.
The key thing is to think about what is important to you, as a company, and what you want to do with that. We encourage people to think about that up front. If the objective of the project is just to recruit talent, we have to make sure that is what we get. If our goal is something different, we measure the success as something different.
Rolls-Royce has 31 UTCs and 14 other research partnerships. How do you maintain so many?
Rolls-Royce has grown a lot, particularly in non-UK regions, and is now a global company. Our number of academic relationships has grown, although the majority still remain in the UK.
In Nottingham and Loughborough, we have national-scale facilities. There is a critical mass and with that concentration, you can manage relationships and projects efficiently. The downside is that we worry about what we might be missing in universities with whom we are not engaged. So that’s why we do things elsewhere, beyond our UTCs.
Both of us (Kate and Mark) have relationships personally with the majority of our UTC teams. That said, the day-to-day work at these UTCs are managed by programme owners. They are out in the field, having a good feel for the subject and are often technical specialists in their subject. Our role in the University Research Office includes facilitating all this and ensuring appropriate governance. We provide the principle interface with key Government agencies, but, critically, also have accountability for stepping back and looking at the overall technology portfolio balance, applying our technical and business judgement to the major activities to ensure the long-term effectiveness of our partnerships.
We have a large number of partners, but some framework agreements are unchanged for decades. We have principles in each agreement and they mature and grow with the projects. That doesn’t mean to say that all the actual project agreements are necessarily exactly the same; each project might have a bespoke agreement. Different countries have different laws for handling internships and IP, so our agreements have to reflect that for example.
We are a very involved funder. There are plenty of agencies who fund good science. We have no problem with that; there is a mechanism for that, and it gives everyone a strong base. But our level of investment will scale on how critical that science might be for us. If we are assessing partners, and it looks like they’re doing something interesting, we offer support that is more than cash. We have data, tools, experts, and experience operating in the word that no one else has. We bring that to the table and that’s unique. Nobody else has data on the products that we make, for example, and we invite our partners to help address significant global challenges. Not many people use the materials we use in the way we use them. So, we have unique experiences.
We also have a strong training programme - supporting something like 500 PhDs training in different subject areas. We tend to have the majority of our PhD-level research in the same locations as our UTCs. We support these training programs for recruitment, but it’s also to provide industrial context for the students. They’re working in a vibrant environment, engaged with a cohort of students, and they have the opportunity to be engaged across the breadth of the company doing leading-edge research. It provides a good, broad experience for them, which is valuable since they are most likely go on to work in industry.
Is Rolls-Royce open to new UTC partners?
We generally explore our research questions with people we are already working with. We do some open challenges, but mostly we partner with those we’ve worked with for a long time. It’s about trust. That said, when we expand into a new country, the government might encourage us to work with their universities for example, and we remain curious about what others can provide especially as technology changes.
So it’s not a closed shop; we’re not done. We’re always horizon-scanning and looking for gaps in our existing research. If we have a gap and a university we haven’t worked with is skilled in that area, there is an opportunity. How we engage is a two-way street. A large part of our day-to-day job in the University Research Office is to explore and see where there are those gaps and who can help us fill them. That said, often people approach Rolls-Royce to ask if they can be a UTC, but it doesn’t work that way. We’ll test out new relationships with exploratory work and see if we work well together –does it gel. We don’t tend to do a big bang with an unknown university and hope it works.
Do we end partnerships? Not very often, but we do. A collaboration might end because they don’t deliver and/or our strategies diverge, or we simply don’t need that technology any longer. But that’s rare. Our research collaborations are focused on fundamental questions and engineering principles. We generally do not concentrate on individual products. That’s a short-term goal. We want tools and a strong understanding of the fundamentals. As technology evolves, our projects do. Just to take an example, hydraulics are still used in the world, but there’s not a need for fundamental research there for us. But artificial intelligence? We’ll likely need a good understanding of that. So we see projects evolve at our UTCs. We have conversations up front; we look ahead and see how things might change.
Do you have best practice or changes you’d recommend to UK universities?
The UK is traditionally really good at science, and less good at exploiting that science into something the country can benefit from. If there is anything we can do better, it’s the closeness of industry-academic collaborations and the ability to expand that into value for the country. The structure of funding in the UK has altered to combine the research councils and large project sponsors like Innovate UK. Translating science into tools, methods and techniques applied by industry, helps to de-risk new products and technology. All of that funding is now under one umbrella at UKRI. There signals a move to make it more aligned across fundamental and applied research. It’s progress that helps address those big challenges, and industry’s role in that is being recognized. A Ph.D. topic will be much more meaningful if placed in context. We help to provide that context.
The UK has made steps to improve that model of industry-academic working. And for both universities and industry, the challenge is understanding culture and landscape. Each party has to do some homework. It’s like the movie Outsourced: if we come into the university, we have to understand how they operate. We have to be a part of their workforce. And universities need to do the same for industry. Each party has to know what the other’s motivators are. Similarly, you can’t apply how we’re successful here in the UK to the other countries. You have to get under the skin and learn and see how the government and culture works in order to make it successful.
The guiding principles are: share information, plan a long-term relationship, and adapt to the culture. That is true of countries and also of universities and individuals. And don’t get complacent; there is always more you can do.
Noelle Gracy works for Elsevier as Head of the Research Collaboration Office and writes the Research Collaboration Works blog.