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New call from EPSRC Impact Acceleration account – 8th September deadline

The Impact Acceleration Award (IAA) provides funding to take EPSRC supported research one step further towards exploitation by Industry. 

Within Cambridge University, funding is available for three schemes:

Knowledge Transfer Fellowships and Postgraduate Placements - enabling researchers to spend time in companies to pass on the knowledge they have developed, and to bring industry knowledge into the University.

Follow on Fund Projects - addressing specific technical barriers to commercialisation identified during the research stage

Partnership Development Awards - funding a small research project that could lead to a major collaboration with industrial partners.

The final round of IAA funding will soon be open for applications. Expressions of Interest should be submitted to the Research Strategy Office by 8 September with a final submission date of 29th September 2014.  Note that some Departments ask to review your proposal before submission to the RSO.

In Engineering please contact Chris Pearson (cp349@cam.ac.uk) or Alexandra Bolton (ahb34@cam.ac.uk), who will be happy to provide support and advice.

Funding is also available for technology roadmapping and industry workshops, bringing together researchers and industry to develop collaborative research proposals.

Full information can be found at http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/rso/iaa/funding/

‘Making Research Relevant to Industry’ – Cambridge Wireless event – Cambridge, 16 July

Free for academicsCW 1

 

“In reversal of the usual approach taken by the Academic & Industry SIG, technology leaders within business will ‘pitch’ their organisations future activities to research focussed academics with the intention of attracting them to work in those areas.”

 

For more information, see: http://www.cambridgewireless.co.uk/events/article/default.aspx?objid=45465

 

Quickstart Guides now available

Would you like a one-page distillation of advice any or all of the following topics?

  1. Choosing research ideas
  2. Forming a robust research proposition
  3. Building buy-in and refining your proposition
  4. Working with an industrial partner
  5. Developing a research consortium
  6. Managing a research consortium
  7. Embedding research results in industry
  8. Sharing research with a wider audience

The topics were selected from consultation with a wide range of participants in the workshops and events from the Theme and in response to specific questions that seem to come up frequently.

So, if you’d like a copy, just drop an email to me at cb683@cam.ac.uk

Pragmatic insights from the coalface

People, trust, flexibility, interaction are all the usual suggestions that you’d expect to make collaborative research more effective. The Engineering Department’s conference “Research through Industrial Collaboration: Engagement in practice – lessons from the coalface” on 1st May 2014 featured speakers from both sides of a collaboration partnership and the comparison of perspectives was fascinating. But what were the surprises?

1Companies with both long and short product cycles value Cambridge’s focus on the fundamental, but for different reasons. Boeing, with long product lives and a need for corporate caution in using new technology, behaves in the same way as Dyson, a company with very short development times and a focus on immediate action. How and why? Both turn to the University for the ‘hard problems’, for the fundamental insights that transcend the business cycle. Gary Fitzmire described how Boeing de-risks technology and seeks solutions for the next generation through research.

Using the University for the fundamental insights doesn’t slow Dyson’s agile product 2development but, as Frederic Nicholas described, instead enables his team to better direct the fast prototyping and experimental cycles that enable radical innovation and speed to marketFrom the Cambridge perspective, rapid changes in priority could threaten long-term research, but Dr Anurag Agarwal described how a focus on fundamentals and understanding the core phenomena enables his research team to deliver value into several product families as they evolve.

3Dr Philip Woodall described how he and his colleagues have learned to go way beyond the ‘research outputs’ to concentrate on the ‘business outcomes’ by focusing on value within the world into which their research will fit. Choosing the most valuable target problems and early planning to get researchers on-site to embed the work underpin success. But both Boeing and Dyson are finding that they have to spend more of their own time to understand and exploit the new opportunities – because the new insights are powerful and have far-reaching implications.

And in a world moving ever faster it’s best to experiment and ‘fail fast’ – right? Well, maybe. How do you ensure the patience to push hard at the difficult problems and not abandon research at the first failure? How hard to push for the big breakthrough?

This is where continuity, flexibility and trust come in. Dr Andrew Flewitt uses collaboration with industrial partners as a “value test” to direhis work and as a stimulus for new questions. So by building the core research capability and facilities over many years through EPSRC funding, Andrew has then been able to work on short-term projects with SMEs that build into long-term relationships.

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One such collaboration evolved as PragmatIC Printing embedded a researcher alongside the Cambridge team to assess and develop the production technology now at the core of the company. Then, as Richard Price explained, they were able to move to the High Value Manufacturing Catapult for the scale-up work that doesn’t fit so well at Cambridge, while Andrew takes the insights from the collaboration to new research directions.

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But how flexible can a consortium be and how do they enable continuity? Professor David Cebon has built the Cambridge Vehicle Dynamics Consortium over two decades as a non-competing ‘supply chain’ consortium, now extending it in collaboration with Herriot Watt university to create the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, this time with (competing) companies from the road freight industry. Ensuring the consortium members actively engage in project selection and execution enables a portfolio of projects, both long- and short-term, providing answers to both enduring and immediate questions.

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And where the enduring questions are of interest across an industry then the consortium approach enables even direct competitors to leverage research funding and address shared problems such as reducing carbon emissions from freight transport, augmented by focused projects on specific implementation, as described by Justin Laney of the John Lewis Partnership.

Philip Guildford, Director of Research at the Engineering Department summarised the morning’s presentations in terms of focus on people’s core interests, try something soon and then iterate as necessary, stay close and keep looking for new connections and new capabilities. And in a foretaste of messages to come – seek to become the natural attractor for new ideas and opportunities.

The pragmatic lies in the context of the strategic as global 8companies form global partnerships with collaborating universities. And as Tomas Coates Ulrichsen reported from the Centre for Science Technology and Innovation Policy’s March conference on strategic partnerships, that research intensive multinational companies will increasingly choose their university partners on the basis of their ability to build international academic alliances to attract the best teams to bring the best research to bear on difficult industrial issues.

So the underlying messages were all flavours of the themes suggested by Professor Richard Penty at the conference dinner. Success depends upon flexibility and a focus on outcomes not milestones. Building long-term relationships between competent people enables the short-term projects to co-exist with researching the fundamentals that enable the big breakthroughs. And it all requires time and commitment to build the frequent interactions that enable mutual trust and understanding between the best possible teams.

 

Working well with your sponsoring company

So you’re a new sponsored student or postdoc – you’ve not been so closely involved with industry so far – what’s the best way to work with your sponsoring company?

Philip Guildford discussed this on 8th May as part of the Transferable Skills Programme in the Engineering Department (www.eng.cam.ac.uk/graduates/current-graduate-students/professional-development).

PGFirstly, think through what might be the perspective of many people in the sponsoring company. Although your direct contacts probably understand the sponsorship and the link to your research, many others in the company won’t. The others may carry around a stereotype of a student and, for better or worse, a stereotype of a student from Cambridge! Philip described the many ways this could be unhelpful – you can imagine how pejorative such a stereotype might be.

So think hard about your first impression.

Try to understand what’s important for people in the sponsoring company – how are they measured, what are the reward systems, what leads to success, how do they get on in the company?  Think particularly how you can help people in the sponsoring company look good – and then contribute in ways that make you most useful to them. Suddenly you’ll become part of the solution for them and not just another burden – and you’ll be a lot more welcome all around the sponsoring company.

 

Adopt a generic business style that you later adapt to suit the sponsoring company’s particular culture

Begin by dressing formally and then, as you learn their dress code, adapt. Start with a suit – not with a scruffy T-shirt and trainers. It’s less embarrassing to be overdressed than underdressed.

Listen much more than you talk. You won’t know all the background and history and there’s probably a good reason for the approach they’ve adopted. And if you have ‘a better idea’, proffer it carefully as ‘a suggestion’. Less embarrassing if you get it wrong than if you began by insisting on the Cambridge answer!

Beware your language. No, not that sort of language. Beware using formal academic jargon (a ‘trivial solution’ to an equation is not the same as a ‘trivial solution’ to a long-embedded technology problem that has stumped them for years)

 

Be responsive

If someone from the company sends an email with a difficult question that will take time to answer DO NOT wait until you’ve solved it before replying. Reply immediately with an assurance that you’re on the case and with an estimate of when you’ll have an answer.

Then make sure you get back to them when you promised.

And if you’ve not then got the answer explain what’s going on. It’s better to provide a report that’s on time, perhaps with some gaps that are flagged up to be completed, than to wait until it’s all finished and deliver late. If in doubt about this, then simply check with your company sponsor.

Avoid the infamous academic habit of simply not replying to emails (unless you really don’t care what impression you’re leaving and are sure you’ll never need their help).

People in the company will be very focused on answers and actions – to pursue their careers and to keep their jobs. So stay focussed on their concerns and don’t digress, avoid long waffly emails, and generally keep it concise.

 

Be organised

Plan. Certainly plan your visits, plan your meetings and you might want to plan your phone calls. What’s the objective and what are the primary questions and/or messages? If there are several of you in a meeting then who is taking the lead? Check early how much time the company people have for a meeting or phone call and stick to the target. Agree an agenda. Manage your time. And be flexible – because if you uncover something interesting then you’ll probably be granted more time.

Communicate well and frequently about how things are going – good or bad.

Be on time, every time

Deliver on promises, turn up when you say you will. And if there’s a problem then tell the bad news early.

 

Avoiding disasters

Always seek feedback – “have I covered everything” or “is there anything else we should be discussing / doing” or “are we on the right track”. Keep checking expectations.

Create and maintain a dialogue. Don’t let long periods of silence allow the build-up of different expectations or of different and unexpected directions of work. Neither you nor the sponsoring company will appreciate the surprise.

Enrol people from the sponsoring company in your project – talk widely and explain what’s in it for them. Encourage them to comment and figure out how you can offer them some ‘quick wins’, early answers or early benefits. Build a network of allies.

 

Managing disasters

You know that network of allies you built? Now is when you need them! Try to build a team response, act quickly and keep communicating.

And if it’s a serious disaster then escalate it early and quickly – tell your PI, and maybe tell Philip Guildford. (Both would rather hear first from you than from the sponsor company!)

 

Philips’s stories and the discussions that followed then opened up many of the messages above, bringing out examples, tips and hints for particular situations, especially for the people who asked for advice in the session.

And remember, whether you aspire to a career in academia or a career in industry, knowing how to work with company sponsors is an invaluable skill. And building your understanding of the relationship with the sponsor is nearly as interesting and academically challenging as your research topic.

 

Nice bit of technology – now, how are you going to manufacture it?

Nice promising research area? Check.

Good initial results? Check.

Prototypes? Check.

 

Now, how will you scale it up for manufacture at a commercially meaningful scale?

 

Ronan Daly and Charles Featherston of the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy are just beginning a research project, “Pathways to Manufacturing”, to develop insights and a systematic approach to the issues and activities to scale up and roll out new technologies.

Right now they are looking for people who might be interested to provide case studies and examples and they are also inviting people interested in tracking their research to get in touch for later discussion and dissemination events.

 

See the project description at: www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/cstip/themes/science-technology-industrial-emergence/p2m/

P2M 140430

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 impact.photo 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 (www.csee.umbc.edu/~finin/home/heilmeyerCatechism.html) 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 difference.photo 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 cb683@cam.ac.uk)

 

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