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What really happens in a review of your proposal for a grant? And what can you do to maximise your chances of success?

Dr Eoin O’ Sullivan, who by his own admission, has read more research proposals than is good for one, shared some key insights with an audience of researchers drawn together by the Research Capability Development Programme and by the Engineering Departments research theme focusing on maximising 1

In any typical round of research competition, there are many more applications than there are funds available. So, in pursuit of a simple life, reviewers typically divide the massive pile into three groups: “must fund”, “maybe” and “forget it”. (I’m paraphrasing Eoin’s words here). Assuming that you don’t have the brilliance or the track record to vault immediately into the “must fund” pile then the trick is to stay in the “maybe” pile and out of the “forget it” pile through several rounds of filtering.

Two ways to hang in there for as long as possible are to provide:

  • Compelling “Pathways to impact”
  • Convincing partnerships with industry

To create and present good cases for either of these you need to i) read the instructions – tripping over a procedural detail makes it easy for the reviewers to bin your idea, ii) start early enough to have time to do the job properly – particularly to interact properly with industry partners to get them bought into your ideas, and iii) be focused and clear – don’t try to research everything and be very clear about what you will actually do. If the reviewers don’t know exactly what you have in mind they can easily assume you don’t really know – a sure route to the “forget it” pile.

The difference that your research will make is a key part of Heilmeir’s catechism ( and Eoin highlighted the critical questions: “Who cares?” and “What difference will it make?”

photo 2This is where the impact statement and the partnership with industry come together: Who cares? Who cares now? Who is going to take your results and do next stage of development? Do you know them? Have you spoken to them? What challenges will they face? Will your results be in form that they can use immediately to go onto the next stage?

If you can create a compelling story about this then you can define impact. And if your industry partners can be precise, within their letters of support, about how they will take and use your results then you greatly reduce your chances of sliding into the “forget it” pile.

The key to success is not to just pick a large figure about, say, the size of the market or the number of people who will benefit. (Your competitors can and will do this). The route to success is instead to identify the sequence – what will be the OUTPUT of your research (what will be “better” as a result), what will be the OUTCOME (so what will be the “changes” from using the outputs) and therefore what will be the BENEFITS (what will be the economic or societal return from the outcomes). Having laid this out, then all you have to do is to describe the specific steps you (and your industry partners) will take – don’t forget the Research Councils encourage you to apply for funding for these steps. And this then is the ‘pathway to impact’.

Be clear about how you get from your research, through the intermediate steps, to the end benefit. Reviewers don’t expect perfect forecasts of the future – but they do require a clear presentation of the feasible steps to take your research and make a 3

So what can your industry partners do to help? This is something you need to set aside the time to agree with them. Tell the reviewers of your work to date – about your joint work with industry to, for example, define the agenda, or the data already given to you by the industry partners to help you formulate your approach. Describe explicitly why your chosen partners (you did choose them carefully, didn’t you?) bring uniquely valuable help to the project – perhaps facilities, resources, data, access to a wider industry audience, or test cases for credibility. And mirror this by the partners’ letters that describe why they want to help and what they will do with your work.

And above all else – avoid pro-forma letters of support. They’re a certain passport to the “forget it” pile.

As for the other parts of the proposal, clarity and precision about what you and your industry partners propose to actually do will win over the reviewers. Vagueness becomes very clear to an attentive reviewer – and the consequence is usually a polite letter of rejection.

(and if you’d like a copy of Eoin’s slides, just ask at


Academia and industry meet to better understand the potential of materials science

The Armourers and Brasiers’ Cambridge Forum will be held on Tuesday 17th June in Cambridge, ( and the programme can be found at

This year’s topics include chemical sensors, the materials needs driven by the UK’s nuclear programme, tailored damping and healing of composites and two presentations on surface science. The 16th Kelly Lecture will focus on how a wide variety of surfaces can be designed for special functions for particular applications

There is no charge to attend the forum but it will help the organisers with planning for catering if you register in advance.

armourers_and_braziersThe Armourers and Brasiers’ Cambridge Forum is held annually at the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy in Cambridge with the aim of raising the profile of materials science in the UK academic and industrial communities, while being international in scope. The Livery Company itself was established in 1322 – that’s quite a long time in materials science!

Staff exchanges underpinning academic / business partnerships – good practice and a support programme for knowledge and technology transfer

It’s easy enough to read the words – but it’s the subtle insights that aren’t written down that really matter.  And that’s true about applying research to a real problem, about understanding the real priorities of your research partner, and about building a better research collaboration.

Exchanging staff between industry and university provides a way for researchers to work alongside their collaborators in a very different world, to understand that world and so to improve the way research is done and how well it is applied.  So the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account at Cambridge University has launched “Knowledge Transfer Fellowships” to support staff exchange between industrial and university collaborators.  See ( for more details.  First deadline for expressions of interest is 11th April 2014.CBB

And you don’t have to explore uncharted territory in staff exchange.  At the seminar that launched the Fellowships, Charles Boulton presented the results from a study into practices that work at Cambridge.

Staff Exchange -why



He began by exploring who gets what out of staff exchanges before going on to discuss a range of good practices and ideas for maximising the chances of success.



Good secondments display a few key characteristics and supportive practices:

  • Senior championship, on both sides, with mutually understood objectives and a willingness to invest time maintaining the relationship in the deep-seated belief that secondment delivers benefits beyond the short-term project
  • Skilled middle management that support the secondment in practice, creating a supportive culture and balancing the short- and long-term deliverables
  • A shared understanding between academia and industry how both can expect to benefit and how both prefer to work
  • An umbrella governance structure, complete but not intrusive, covering IP, confidentiality and funding
  • Clear objectives, usually documented, but only informal metrics that drive constructive behaviour
  • Minimal focus on short-term value or on explicit assessment of value-for-money
  • An ‘orientation’ route for the secondee, explicitly planned or arising from mutual experience and a supportive culture
  • Defined and specific tasks, but with space (and maybe an explicit plan)  for broader benefits to be realised

 Staff Exchange KSF

He also described the characteristics of the effective secondee aiming to transfer knowledge between industry and academia: politically astute, flexible and competent enough to build the confidence of the host organisation. Then able to discern and to communicate the subtle insights that build a really deep and excellent research collaboration.

(If you’d like a copy of Charles’ presentation from the session, contact him at

Finding the second and subsequent rounds of funding for a Research Centre

So, the day after enjoying the champagne to celebrate winning the grant for your new Research Centre, it’s time to start thinking about the follow-on funding.  So soon?  Yes, immediately!

That was just one of the messages to emerge from a fascinating Panel Session that brought together the Directors of three very different research centres that span several generations of Research Council thinking about the development and continuation of funded centres.drops

imh2Professor Ian Hutchings heads up the Inkjet Research Centre (, the first cycle of which ran through 2005 to 2010.  Bringing together a consortium of direct competitors in the sector, the centre researches questions of fundamental interest that would not otherwise be addressed.

JSJennifer Schooling is Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (, half funded by the Technology Strategy Board and focused on deploying technologies into an industry famous for its wafer-thin margins.  And Chris Rider’s Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large-Area Electronics (, launched in October 2013, is a multi-university collaboration led by the CIKC, which itself was an EPSRC funded Centre, with a core grant finishing in December 2012 and  a continuing focus on printed and plastic electronics through new funding sources.CR

Several key messages were echoed by all:

  • You must show success in your prior endeavours – why else would they back you?
  • Simultaneously, you need to show that the second and subsequent generations of the work are exploring something new and something of great value.

Success and metrics are an obvious concern, but actually there are no clear and consistent definitions of success, nor are metrics imposed.  Indeed, in some instances, the metrics initially promised are never revisited.  However, there is no doubt that the research must deliver – both in papers and conference presentations and also to industrial collaborators.  And responding to their needs with useful insights and technologies is just one place where you can enrol your industrial collaborators as your greatest supporters.

Finding the next and new direction to justify further funding will be tough – ‘the low-hanging fruit will have been picked’.  Again, working closely with your industry supporters helps here.  The industry will almost certainly have moved on during the first tranche of funding. So what matters now, what are the new questions, where do you need to look next?  And how valuable will your new answers be?

Some Centres have had great success using roadmapping.  The process helps build dialogue between industrialists and researchers, the map shows the significance of current research and how it links to market issues, and the thinking about the future envisages a number of directions that could turn into the next research agenda.

How else can your industrial collaborators help?  As supporters they are at their most convincing when they are very specific in describing the value and importance of your work.  They’ll be best able to do this if you involve them in the formulation of the research agenda and work programme. (By the way, boilerplate letters of support are useless – or worse).   Why not ask your industrial partners to liaise with the Research Councils?  The Councils are always trying to identify future directions and key issues so they’ll welcome a cogent position from industry.  See, for example, the EPSRC’s Strategic Advisory Teams (

(By the way – your industrial partners will need to have the answer to the obvious question – “If this is such a good idea then why aren’t you funding it yourself?”)Website-slider1-v2-1708x488

Think also about industrial players outside your immediate collaborators.  One approach is to build and support a network of companies that meet for discussions and interaction with each other and the researchers.  As well as appreciating the intrinsic value, such companies are usually happy to help you to discern critical industry issues for the future.  Think about the ‘ecosystem’ around your research in order to find compelling reasons for the next big step.  Consider also the Knowledge Transfer Networks – they’ll give you focused access to interested and engaged industrialists. (

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships provide an ideal way to cement a relationship between your research group and an industrial collaborator, especially if you’re trying to involve an SME. (See for more information here)

66f081cf-35a1-4d4f-916b-b55e99d11768For the researchers in Smart Infrastructure, industrial deployment is such a key focus, that the team is developing specific processes to get industry engaged and involved – so think about how you help your partners and the best ways of doing so.

Research Centres also develop assets, be they capital equipment or intellectual property.  Surely this offers a stream of funding to support the research?  Forget it for IP.  The timescales for bringing research-based IP to an income stream are usually longer than the life of the centre.  Complications of ownership and attribution of income make even minor contributions unlikely.

The significance and value of large capital assets are very sector-specific.  In some cases expensive and rare facilities can provide cash flow, either as a resource made available to industry or as a basis for consultancy operations.  More importantly, the right equipment can provide a foundation for the next generation of research and hence a compelling proposition to the Research Council for the cost-effectiveness of the next Centre.

Consultancy might be another option, but one that’s hard to manage.  How does one manage priorities, cash flow and ownership of developing IP?  Feasible, but difficult.

One area of importance is the availability of some uncommitted resource within the Centre to pursue the short-term imperatives and opportunities.  If the Co-Investigators have their research teams fully committed then the Centre Director lacks resource to address things such as impact opportunities, the crafting of new proposals and all the activity associated with liaison with the industry partners.  Therefore it’s vital to create and reserve some resource that can be deployed as needed.  Indeed EPSRC has recognised this, to the point of advising it and, in some instances, requiring it, especially around the impact agenda

But what if it goes wrong and there is a gap in funding?  How do you keep the team together?  One answer is EU or perhaps HEIF funding, but this tends to be for later Technology Readiness Levels than most research centres.  One option might be the Isaac Newton Trust that provides bridging funding ( – but you’ll need to be able to demonstrate when other sources of funding will kick in.

So that’s it then.

Oh yes, – and why that point about starting immediately to think about subsequent funding?

In fact, what you will do next, with whom and how will shape all the actions from your current research.  And if you leave it too late you no longer have time to lay the foundations for the next round, to create the successes that will illustrate the value, or to discern the new directions that are so essential, to build the networks and relationships for the future.  So start thinking about it now.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships – disseminating, embedding and using research for real

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, managed well, can lead to great research, using real data in the real world, can help companies in the most pragmatic of ways and can provide the key people involved with valuable career experience.

The key structure in KTP is the partnership: i) a business partner that needs knowledge, ii) an academic partner that has knowledge, and iii) the ‘Associate’ who transfers the knowledge. The core purpose of the KTP is configuring the basic research and applying it to the business needs.  In the best cases this highlights more questions that drive more research, both applied and basic.

JS coverJan Stringer, the regional adviser for KTPs set the stage, explaining how it all works and dispelling a few old myths.  One of the huge advantages of the KTP scheme is its flexibility – if the programme needs to change for good research or commercial reasons then the flexibility is there to do so.  So, although the objective of a KTP is the application of research, even in applied research this flexibility means that projects are more robust and there is a greater likelihood of the partners getting what they seek.

Jan’s primary role is to help each partner get what they want, whether that be the Associate shaping their career by getting the training and experience they want, the researcher getting their papers prioritised and written as well as helping the company derive commercial benefit from the knowledge transfer.  And in some instances, Associates can work up a PhD during the partnership. There’s typically a specific budget for the professional development of the Associate.

The hit rate for winning KTP funding is upward of 80%.  If you’ve already got a CASE or an i-CASE award the opportunity is even more compelling

The KTP model has developed over the years and a recent assessment by the Council for Industry and Higher Education CIHE found that it complies with all the principles of open innovation good practice.  (

In addition, a KTP encourages a long-term strategic relationship between the university and the company especially when the KTP acts as a mediating function to support collaborative work.KTP TRL

The KTP project aims to covers a range of technology readiness levels, sitting as a bridge between the basic research typically funded by the Research Councils and the pure development work funded by companies.  It fits into that gap identified by so many as ‘the valley of death’.

Although technology makes up the majority of Jan Stringer’s KTP projects there are exceptions – like the religious studies academics helping a UK investment house to understand the requirements of Muslim customers.

KTP’s emerge by various routes; companies contacting researchers directly, companies contacting the TSB or by academics and potential associates seeking new ways to disseminate their research.  But in each case, the best starting point is to contact Jan Stringer to discuss the fit and feasibility of the project and she is only too happy to help customise the project to meet the needs of the programme and the partners.  (Jan can be contacted at

Big projectProfessor Robert Mair (Head of civil and environmental engineering, Cambridge ) then provided an insight into the success of the KTP that he and his team have enjoyed working with CrossRail. Embedding fibre-optics during the construction of the massive shafts for tunnel excavation in London has enabled a better understanding of the design implications, design margins and hence the opportunities for saving millions of pounds in future developments.  The KTP associates were embedded in the Crossrail project team and created invaluable date that is underpinning continuing research at Cambridge.   Mair outcomesAs well as acquiring data that would otherwise be unavailable, the team has published four journal papers so far, generated considerable international interest, created the material for a spectacular IMPACT case study and further developed the strong relationships with Crossrail.

Finally, Dr Tariq Masood provided an Associate’s viewpoint based on his work between Cranfield, Loughborough and Rolls Royce.  He described developing a service knowledge backbone that enabled Rolls Royce design engineers to use the massive amounts of operational data collected from the engines.  He supervised a multinational team of software engineers from three different countries, working with people in RR and Cranfield, providing validation across different countries.  He and the academic team generated two conference papers and two publications from the two year project.

Discussion ensued covering the availability of funds for professional development, travel and conferences (they do exist).  It emerged that although one might imagine larger companies are better partners than SMEs, the focus of SMEs on a tight domain is often a help in maintaining momentum to embed the research in the company.  SMEs also often offer a broader range of experiences for the Associate.

Professor Mair confirmed that the average of 0.5 days per week spent on a KTP collaboration is a realistic commitment, but pointed out that this is very much part of running an effective and interesting research project.

Fears about IP were raised, with Jan Stringer confirming that only if the publication needs of the academics are respected and the equitable management of IP is in place will the project go ahead.  The KTP is always set up as a win for all partners with Jan helping to manage the projects so that partners get what they want.

The success of the programme as a whole is a testament to the flexibility and robustness of the KTP as a means of getting research disseminated, embedded and used.

(Thanks also to Dominik Deradjat for help preparing this post, and if you’d like a copy of the slides, please contact Charles Boulton, cb683 (at)

Disseminating research through consultancy – two different approaches

Working as a consultant through Cambridge Enterprise or leveraging the practitioner team through IfM Education and Consultancy Services were the options explored in detail in the most recent seminar run by “Inspiring Research through Industrial Collaboration” and the Research Capability Programme.

Paul Seabright described how to work through Cambridge Enterprise, linking also to an engaging video that describes how they work (  CE picThe volume and value of consulting through CE continues to increase every year and the size of the projects is also increasing.  Although most assignments arise from companies directly contacting the academic in the first instance, CE is happy to provide advice – even if the academic then decides not to use CE’s services.

Hugh Hunt went on to describe the successes he has had working through Cambridge Enterprise, and some of the difficulties he’s experienced consulting independently. Bouncing Bomb Hugh also described some of the projects he’s done, emphasising how CE enables an international reach by managing tax, contracts, exchange rates and liability issues in working as far afield as the US and Australia.   Hugh also values CE’s help in working on projects which are not necessarily big – but in which there is plenty that could go wrong and give rise to some serious liabilities – see for example, building the bouncing bomb: !  Hugh also puts the interesting consultancy projects on his web page ( and finds that they attract people and projects.  In fact, some projects that start as consultancy then turn into interesting research.

Peter Templeton described the different model of IfM Education and Consultancy Services ( as an alternative for academics wanting to scale their dissemination work up in scope and reach.  ECS has developed a network of very experienced and well-qualified consulting practitioners.  As a research area develops, the academics work closely with the practitioners, consulting to clients and developing both the research and the methodologies for wider use.  ECS ModelAs the methodologies become more formalised so the practitioners take them over and apply them in industry.  And then funding from industry covers not only the consulting time, but also contributes to the underlying intellectual property so recognising and rewarding the researchers who developed the initial ideas and worked them up for application. Although most of their work today is in management consultancy and policy advice, ECS is exploring how to support more technical consulting work.

So if you think you’d like to work with a team that’s ready to multiply your efforts contact Peter at ECS ( and if you’d like a packaged and hassle-free way of consulting as a sole-practitioner then contact Paul at Cambridge Enterprise (

And if you’d like copies of their slides, contact Charles Boulton (

Seedfunds, start-ups and spinouts

Where do you go for funding that great business you’d like to start – and what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Two people who know the answers to these questions shared them with an audience from across the University Schools of Technology, Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences and the Clinical Medicine.

Anne Dobrée, Head of Seed Funds at Cambridge Enterprise, described the funding landscape and the options.  CE funds 131216She started with the bad news – the venture capitalists and banks are not your starting point.  VCs have pulled back from seed funding, except the occasional foray into digital or consumer businesses with rapid returns.  But, particularly around Cambridge, there are myriad sources, from friends and families, to angels and seedfunds.  The trick is to use your networks – find somebody who knows somebody who can introduce you and your idea.  Don’t send it to a prospective investor cold – it’ll join the myriad others in the bin.

Perhaps the most robust way to create a cashflow to support the business, if you can, is good old-fashioned sales.  And you give away less of the business.

Anne then covered Cambridge Enterprise’s Follow-on Fund (NB – the next deadline for an expression of interest is 8th January), their Seed fund and Enterprise Fund.  And, most importantly, don’t forget Cambridge Enterprise’s capacity and interest in helping you to get started, to find mentors and sources of funding and to act as a sounding board as your plans come together (

Then Darrin Disley, CEO of Horizon Discovery, spoke on the attitudes and behaviour of a successful entrepreneur.  A YouTube video of his talk “Mindsets and Motivations” can be found at 131216He also talked about the profound importance of staying lean and focused, the lean start-up.  See also Eric Ries’ book, “The Lean Startup” and site at  Finally Darrin discussed the power of the business model behind Horizon Discovery and how an approach that aligns the interests of owners, investors and customers has enabled such stunning growth.

show-me-the-money-smAnd if you’d like a book on the subject, try “Show Me the Money” by locals Alan Barrell, David Gill and Martin Rigby.  It’s accessible, easy to navigate and, published in September, it’s right up to date.


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