French Thales’s long history in UK collaborations: Matt Ball talks about the challenges and opportunities in UK University Collaborations

In our autumn blog series, we’re asking KE experts on the industry side why their companies choose to work with UK Universities.  These R&D-centric multinationals have international collaboration choices, but also a finite amount to invest.  How can the UK gain an edge?  Matt Ball, Chief Scientist and Head of Academic Liaison at Thales, talks about Thales’s choice to invest in UK research, the pros and cons of the UK impact agenda, and why it’s so hard to spend money in the UK.

 

About Dr Matt Ball, Chief Scientist and Head of Academic Liaison at Thales

Matt Ball leads the academic engagement strategy for Thales UK. This includes developing strategic partnerships and relationships with university partners as well as funders and learned societies.  He is the point of contact for all Thales UK business entities and advises on opportunities for scientific collaboration, leveraged funding and promotion of the Thales Group Research and Technology strategic objectives across the UK academic community.

 

About Thales UK

Thales Group partners globally with many universities for research collaborations with over 30 strategic partnerships and joint labs around the world and sponsors around 200 PhDs at any one time.

In the UK, the University of Bristol is Thales’ Strategic Partner.  However, they also work with other UK universities on strategic areas of interest across aerospace, space, ground transportation, defence and security.

Thales UK is further involved with a total of over £145M of EPSRC-funded research and doctoral training centres.

 

Thales is a French company.  Why do they have so many UK collaborations?

We’re a global company, with presence in 56 countries. The UK represents about 10% of the global business, and we are unique outside of France, as we cover all of Thales markets.  There is a global Research and Innovation strategy that is set by the Group CTO, and that is informed by the key technology needs of the global business and it sets the national research priorities.   

In the UK, we have a corporate Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) unit which acts as an internal Research and Innovation service to complement and enhance the R&D investments made by the business units. This focus on contributing to the growth and profitability of the UK business units, coupled with the nature of our UK customer base, means I am primarily looking for UK partnerships where we can work collaboratively with stakeholders.

That said, a significant proportion of the funding we use to support UK academic partnerships is intended to deliver against the global technical strategy.  Therefore I have to continue to make the case of the strength of the UK ecosystem to attract this funding. For example, Thales Group has made significant investment in Artificial Intelligence technologies in France and Canada, and we are working on how we can mesh the UK’s substantial research capabilities into this global strategy.

The RTI unit in Reading currently is focussed on assisting our UK businesses along a journey of digital transformation of our product and service offerings.  It’s crucial that we maintain a network of academic relationships to provide access to cutting-edge research and skills that will provide the platforms for our future technologies.   I work across research groups and the business units to develop a UK strategy that works for all parties.

Our academic footprint in the UK is very broad.  It’s grown organically from our long heritage here.  We’re active across diverse areas, and our business units have local partnerships.  From those organic origins, we’re looking to formulate a more strategic approach.  At present, we sponsor 45-50 PhDs, and what I’m doing now is developing more of a strategic programme and portfolio approach to UK collaborations.

Part of our approach is looking at key strategic areas where our University partners have capabilities and look to develop corporate-level agreements for a fixed period.  That allows us to take away contracting overhead and plan long term.  But these Framework agreements are hard to do, as Thales covers such a broad range of technologies and domains. Therefore, it’s only worth it if we’re convinced of a significant on-going investment in the universities across multiple research areas.

 

 

What are some of the advantages of working in the UK?

What is good about the UK is the positive attitude towards working with industry.  There has been a keen focus from funders on the impact agenda, and there are good incentives for universities to collaborate.  I worked for the EPSRC for eleven years, including as Head of Business Engagement, and know very well the work they’ve done to drive that atmosphere and emphasize the perks of industry and university partnerships.  There is also great diversity in the UK university sector. This means we can cover wide areas of interest to the company.

As you know from the Elsevier BEIS report [International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016], the UK punches above our weight in terms of output and quality for the money that is spent.  A lot of work has been done by e.g. EPSRC into convincing the government that there is value in academic-industry collaboration, and that is bearing fruit.  UK R&D spend is increasing.  There are positive funding streams like the UK industrial strategy challenge fund and Prosperity Partnerships, and they’re really well-received.  This makes the UK attractive as a partner for multinationals. 

 

Are there challenges unique to UK university collaborations?

There are challenges from some of the positive things. The UK’s diversity and breadth is a strength but also a challenge in that makes it a complex landscape.  There are a lot of universities and research institutes out there.  It can be hard to differentiate.  If you’re looking at a new area where you don’t have existing contacts, it can be hard to get really under the skin from the outside and to work out who is doing what, and what the quality really is. 

There is also a challenge in terms of the timescales to get things done. We work on an annual business budget cycle, and if we have in-year spend available, it can be difficult to get anything in place to actually spend the money.  Sometimes we’ll need to spend three or four months to get something scoped, and the internal approval process for a large company can be cumbersome, meaning we don’t have time in the year to get the work done.  If you have to build in time to recruit an academic team, then it’s even longer.  

Part of the answer involves closer partnerships so that we can look ahead, plan better and contract faster while gaining better understanding on both sides of the different pressures and organisational cultures that come into play.  

The more we have cohorts of critical mass at universities, and have that dialogue, the better we can signal priorities going forward.  Having that dialogue, we might be able to see opportunities coming sooner.  We can see calls for funding coming, see bottlenecks, and that would enable us to work and connect closer and quicker. 

Part of it is just building up a mixed team.   At Bristol, we have Thales people on-site, and I think this embedded team approach will improve the timescale of getting things off the ground, and help with the usual problems of getting a cross-institutional teams working functionally together. 

 

 

Do you have best practice or changes you would recommend to UK KE practitioners?

There can be challenges with IP negotiation with universities, of course.  Sometimes we find that universities have unrealistic expectations around the business case for investment in University research, if we have end up not being able to use the outcomes commercially.  For all the great things that have come out of the impact agenda, it does appear, at times, that some universities have interpreted their remit to be that they should be doing the commercialisation themselves rather than ensure it happens by any route, which then drives the negotiation.  Clearly some of this comes down the company strategy and risk appetite, but there are some universities we have not contracted with for this reason and are unlikely to try again.

However, in my experience the UK KE community, including the Industrial Engagement teams in the UK are committed and professional individuals and have a difficult job balancing between the University, the academics and their industry partners and the vast majority of the time, we see a way through to getting things done.

 

 

Thales and PraxisAuril

PraxisAuril (then PraxisUnico) supported a series of events in 2015/16/17 in partnership with the Defence Academic Pathways group (chaired by DSTL).  Thales were the lead partner for the ‘Complex Systems’ event held in April 2017.  Thales were also involved with the hugely successful ‘What Industry Wants’ event in 2013.

 

See the other interviews in this series

Noelle Gracy works for Elsevier as Head of the Research Collaboration Office and writes the Research Collaboration Works blog.