It was nice to have some good news at the end of last week with the publication of the HE Business and Community Interaction Survey (HEBCIS). This showed that UK Knowledge Exchange is a continuing success with the value of our interactions growing 7% to nearly £5bn in 2018-19. It is clear that universities, working with partners are making a huge difference to society.
We understand that the COVID-19 lockdown presents many challenges for our members and partners. Now is the time to come together and support one another for the benefit of all. PraxisAuril is seeking examples of where partners have been unable to complete projects, raise funding, develop new products etc because of the current crisis. And we are also looking for examples of where KE practitioners have been able to make a difference. If you have examples you can share, please contact our Chair Sean Fielding on email@example.com.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reaction to the C-19 challenge. Universities are working on infection models, new vaccines, new antibody tests, training for nurses and doctors, making face masks, lending equipment, creating apps and volunteering in the community. All of these activities are supported by people from the knowledge exchange community, working long hours to get vital new developments or facilities out into the market or into the hospitals as quickly as possible and with the least fuss.
But now there’s a longer-term challenge. How can universities continue to build the future with business when all the businesses are in lock-down, their staff are being furloughed and investors are dropping away?
Across our community we have heard of high-tech, high-growth companies who have lost their investment, lost their clients and markets, had their grants pulled, lost their key staff, had to rely on shareholders for bailouts, reduced their salaries, are relying on R&D credits and generally running on fumes. We are focussing on the small early-stage companies on the assumption that the later stage ones with significant VC investment will be looked after by their VC investors. Most of these are pre-profit at best and pre-revenue at worst. Under the current arrangements, they may well not qualify for anything much apart from Universal Credit.
We call on the government to do more for this crucial group of companies that will form the lifeblood of future growth. Can their furloughed employees be allowed to keep working? Could KTP associates be furloughed to enable their projects to be extended? Could IUK and other funders’ terms be loosened eg grants could be made available in advance of match funding? Could the EIS scheme be relaxed to provide a longer runway?
These high-growth businesses are often to be found clustered around university innovation centres and science parks and these too will start to suffer as they offer rental holidays to companies to keep them going. Could these innovation centres be refocused as part of the solution? Could University Enterprise Zones be enabled to support the ventures in their areas with new flexible approaches?
PraxisAuril stands ready to help our 5000 members bring the support of the universities to bear on this economic crisis, just as we have already done to support the health crisis all around us.
Sean Fielding RTTP
Chair, PraxisAuril 2019-21
Director, Innovation, Impact and Business
University of Exeter