In our autumn blog series, we’re asking a series of KE experts on the industry side why their companies choose to work with UK Universities. These R&D-centric multinationals have a wealth of collaboration choices, and naturally, a finite amount to invest. How can the UK gain an edge? Professor Paul Beasley, Head of R&D UK at Siemens talks about the unique position of the UK in terms of data and technology testing, and gives a few words of warning about complacency in a global innovation marketplace.
About Professor Paul Beasley,Head of R&D UK at Siemens
Professor Paul Beasley has been Head of R&D UK at Siemens since 2014. Paul is responsible for managing and developing research collaborations in the UK. The role includes identifying research opportunities, collaboration management and assessment of Siemens’ university initiatives in the UK. His team also supports the Siemens global talent acquisition initiative.
Siemens currently works with 25 university partners worldwide in two tiers.
- Centres of Knowledge Interchange (CKIs): there are eight Siemens CKIs globally. They are established with universities who share a common strategy in key innovation themes; a broad range of collaborations; embedded teams and facilities; established framework agreements; an excellent working relationship with Siemens and board member executive sponsorship.
- Principal partners: this category of strategic partnerships have common innovation themes; have attracted a broad range of collaborations; embedded teams; established framework agreements; an excellent working relationships with Siemens and local executive sponsorship.
Additionally, regional partner universities are developed into global strategic partner universities through a program of increased investment and collaborations headed by the local Siemens organizations.
- Partners: these universities typically work with local Siemens business units on specific contract work. If these engagements develop a good working relationship and attract a broader range of collaborations globally, they can be considered for principle partner status.
Siemens works in multiple research collaborations with UK universities. Is that by design?
There has been a significant change in the research engagement strategy within Siemens over the last 15 years. Historically, Siemens developed technology internally through its global Corporate Technology organisation which supported the diverse company portfolio. However, the innovation strategy changed in the 2000’s to increase our engagement with external global research centres of excellence in order to access technologies more quickly with greater agility and flexibility. This was needed, particularly as the company portfolio changed through acquisitions and divestments.
Following the introduction of the external engagement strategy, it was necessary to add some structure in order to prioritise the relationships with likeminded collaborative universities.
We also recognized that it was beneficial to have more than one university specialising on our key strategic themes. We found that it was beneficial to retain competition amongst universities in order to continually drive innovation. With a guaranteed funding stream, we find that partners tend to lose their innovative edge. The current structure is based on 25 global strategic universities, where we intentionally work with overlaps. There is competition between universities and regions to leverage funding from Siemens and externally. At these key universities, we share our strategic innovation themes in order to plan future research areas and capabilities. Different regions, countries and universities have their specialities and capabilities, and these invariably change and evolve over time.
Siemens’ CKIs doesn’t currently include a UK university. Why is that?
Siemens started the CKI program in the early 2000’s, and at the time, the focus was on key areas of the business which fell mainly in the US and Germany. We had a number of collaborations at UK universities, but they didn’t have the critical mass or the strength to be promoted to the CKI program. There was also a lack of awareness of the UK’s capabilities and opportunities for industrial research and innovation now offered by Innovate UK. Following a formal assessment of the UK research base in 2010 and an internal focus on fewer, more selected, strategic partners, we now see more UK universities joining as collaborators. At present, about 20% of our Siemens collaborations are in the UK.
Was there an intention to balance your collaboration programs geographically?
No; the selection and the investment was made based on capability and facilities. We reviewed feedback from all university programs: how involved the universities were, the types of opportunities and the quality of the output. There are a number of metrics used to ensure we are working with the best partners: quality of research, the number of programs and the level of co-investment. We also have a talent acquisition programme aligned with our research investments at these universities.
We’re not just making the assessment on reputation or geography. We have a mechanism in place to judge the university and relationship holistically in a data-driven way. And in some cases, we reduce the number of strategic partner universities.
Another important factor for strategic partner universities is the existence of a framework agreement. These exist with many of our UK partners (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Sheffield). The University of Lincoln, for example, is one of our strategic partners with a framework agreement. They are very engaged, supportive, and they really want to collaborate and work with Siemens. We have an embedded team at the university and the relationship has developed extremely well, to the point that Siemens performs training in gas turbines in collaboration with university.
What do you think is different culturally about engaging with UK universities versus other countries?
Every year, since we established a UK research network in 2012, we have held an engagement event with our 10 strategic partner universities in the UK. It’s a chance to share and discuss research priorities, talent development and opportunities. Our colleagues from Munich are always surprised how we manage to get all our universities in the same room. We understand that this is not commonplace in other countries/regions, where they can struggle to get one or two universities to join a cross-university meeting. Also unique is the ability of UK universities to be real lynchpin of programmes, for example, Horizon 2020 programs.
What is striking, compared with other universities, is the collaborative nature of UK universities. Not just with Siemens, but with each other.
What is the most challenging cultural or legislative element you find in your UK academic collaborations?
In some of the most prestigious universities, there can be a real issue around commercialisation of intellectual property rights from industrially-funded programmes. We have seen some US universities move away from demands for significant additional payments. They’re more willing to engage and commercialise results.
In the early 2010’s UK universities were making similar IP demands, but now we are seeing a greater willingness to support commercialization.
The commercialisation side of the Lambert agreements are not too favourable for industry. Certainly it’s limited the engagement of SMEs, because they haven’t got the time and legal support to establish the right terms to commercialise. But I’m optimistic. The 2015 Dowling Review included recommendations to modify the Lambert agreements and suggested a reduced need for IP ownership at the university. The government is very keen to see greater commercialisation of the research output by industries in the UK. The formation of Innovate UK, has been welcomed and is enabling transition of university research into opportunities to commercialize.
Do you have best practice or changes you’d recommend to UK universities?
It is still a challenge that many of the top-tier UK universities are still not willing to recognise that research and innovation is now a global market. Many universities in the Far East are attracting multinationals with excellent co-investment conditions, world class researchers, etc. Singapore can get significant government-matched funding, which is very difficult for other countries to compete with. There are massive investments in China in infrastructure. For example at Tsinghua University, government investment has enabled them to become one of the global top 50 universities. Furthermore, in some cases, Asian academics are trained in the UK, the US or Europe and are developing very good international reputations in research before returning to Asia. Naturally collaboration partners are moving their investments to follow this talent.
In the UK, some of the universities are beginning to recognise that they will need to offer more competitive terms, to retain their collaboration partners. Others may lose out, as they are no longer attractive as partners in this global landscape. Multinational industries are in a position where they can work with their choice of successful, collaborative universities. I’d recommend there is a balance to be had: reputation and commercial collaboration terms and conditions.
You’ve worked in Siemens’ healthcare and are now in Siemens’ technology. Do you see a difference in sectors in terms of academic collaboration?
The UK has a unique ability/environment to develop and quickly evaluate new healthcare technology with industry partners. In particular, digital technologies are reliant on access to data. Because of government regulations, access to health data in many regions is strictly controlled, but the UK has a more open data policy. The Open Data Institute assessed the UK as the second most open data region. The US is 8th. Germany 26th.
In our transition to a digital company, there are so many areas where Siemens can work with infrastructure and partners to utilise data for improved performance, understanding and reliability. We’ve realised artificial intelligence and data analytics are key areas for Siemens in the future, and we recognise that the UK has some excellent capabilities and know-how in this space.
The UK also has the very unique concept of Living Labs. In a Living Lab, we can actually test technology in a product and evaluate the associated business cases in a real environment. Previously, you could test technology and do a demonstration, but now we’re actually putting it into products and seeing how that product could be used in a digital environment. It allows us to be more proactive. An approach where you can bring technology and link it to a real environment and test quickly is very attractive and unique to the UK.
Noelle Gracy works for Elsevier as Head of the Research Collaboration Office and writes the Research Collaboration Works blog.