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The increasing importance of collaboration between universities and external partners

ucypcac4 June 2019

Dr Celia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise)

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that leaders and policy makers face today is to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development in the coming decades. By ‘sustainable,’ we mean growth that brings benefits and opportunities equally across all segments of society and does not come at the cost of jeopardising the environment.

The recent climate protests in London – and before that the global ‘occupy’ movement – have shown the depth of feeling around these issues.

Yet there needn’t be a dichotomy between economic growth and societal and environmental preservation. Leading economists, such as last year’s Nobel laureates William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, have shown that both can be achieved and even become mutually dependent.

This will not happen with a ‘business as usual’ approach though. It will require a significant increase in research and development (R&D) – with universities, industry, third sector and government working together to solve complex social, environmental and technological challenges.

UCL Innovation & Enterprise has responded to this challenge through the creation of the Business & Innovation Partnerships (BIP) team, which helps academics collaborate with some of the world’s leading companies, as well SMEs, NGOs and charities.

Our BIP team is made up of specialists with academic and business backgrounds who understand both the research and economic landscapes – and crucially how to marry to the two successfully. The ultimate aim is to forge multifaceted, long-lasting partnerships, which can begin to address some of the complex societal and technological challenges of our times.

One initiative that the BIP team has been involved with, that exemplifies the sort of sustainable growth we might aim for in the future, is the Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub.

Assistive technology for the benefit of all

Based at Here East, the GDI Hub is helping to accelerate the provision of assistive technologies to improve the lives of people with disabilities. It is formed of a research centre and a non-profit, community interest company (CIC). UCL Innovation & Enterprise helped to establish the CIC as well providing knowledge exchange funding and business advice – all of which helped ready the GDI for engagement with government and other funding partners.

In April, the GDI hub secured a £19.8 million grant from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to test new approaches to assistive products and service design, as well as the markets which support their provision globally. Crucially, the DFID funding will be 100% matched by the private sector, country governments, academic institutions, NGOs and other partners.

The GDI has a major presence in Europe, Asia and Africa – with some particularly exciting projects in Kenya. While Kenya has a burgeoning tech sector, it risks leaving people with disabilities behind. Now a project called Motivation is aiming to develop the next generation of wheelchairs there.

Clearly, improving the lives of all people with disabilities is something we as a society should absolutely be striving to achieve under any circumstances. At the same time, this project has the added benefit of effectively creating new market sectors in many developing nations – stimulating local economies and also increasing overall productivity.

Green shoots of growth

In the UK, the goal of creating sustainable and equitable economic growth is laid out in the Industrial Strategy, first published in 2017. It highlights four key Grand Challenges – Artificial Intelligence and data; Ageing society; Clean growth; and the Future of mobility – through which to focus R&D efforts.

There are promising signs that the Industrial Strategy is stimulating activity in these areas. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recently published an online interactive map, plotting companies and projects that are answering the call of the Grand Challenges – featuring several from the UCL community.

Renault vehicle with a Bramble fuel cell range extender

For example, covering both ‘Clean growth’ and ‘Future mobility,’ UCL spinout Bramble Energy is bringing hydrogen fuel cell technology to the mainstream, ushering in a new era of truly sustainable power. Bramble’s use of printed circuit board (PCB) technology to form the structural parts of the fuel cell is driving down costs and leveraging existing manufacturing infrastructure for PCBs. Bramble is developing products and solutions for off-grid applications – both static and portable – including a range extender for electric vehicles.

Addressing ‘AI and data’ and ‘Ageing society,’ is an inspiring start-up that was born out of the entrepreneurship programme run by UCL Innovation & Enterprise at the BaseKX incubator and startup space. Fintech company Kalgera has launched an app that uses neuroscience research and machine learning to detect subtle changes in financial behaviour associated with vulnerability to fraud – particularly among older people who are most at risk.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

As well as shaping these Grand Challenges, the Industrial Strategy encompasses a goal to increase research and development (R&D) spending in the UK from current levels of around 1.7% of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. That’s at least £13 billion per year extra in R&D spending by 2027.

How are we to achieve this R&D spending uplift and where exactly is it going to come from? With public R&D funding likely to remain static, part of the solution undoubtedly lies in collaboration and external partnerships.

Interestingly, in the UK, just 400 companies carry out three quarters of all business-funded R&D. This means that there’s a wealth of untapped potential in terms of companies that aren’t engaged in significant levels of R&D but could be with greater support from universities.

Importantly, there are significant mutual benefits for both parties in pursuing joint R&D activities and innovative partnerships.

For business, there is an opportunity to stay ahead of competitors in the sector by understanding and using new technologies – potentially even as a springboard into entirely new markets and sectors. Companies can also access expert academic research capabilities that are simply not available in-house and identify potential technology licencing and spinout acquisition targets. Ultimately this can achieve significant gains in productivity and profits.

For academics, (as I explored in my previous VP View) engaging externally and collaborating with companies and organisations outside of UCL can bring a multitude of benefits to core research and teaching activities.

Indeed, collaboration with external partners was a strong theme at the recent UCL Awards for Innovation and Enterprise earlier this week.

The award winners encompassed everything from joint approaches to drug discovery with a consortium of academic and pharmaceutical partners – to a project working with organisations and companies to improve services for people with hearing loss.

As we strive to develop a culture of innovation and enterprise across UCL, these Awards can provide examples to our students, staff, alumni and partners. If you’ve been inspired by any of them, either as an academic or potential external partner, I would encourage you to get in touch with our team at UCL Innovation & Enterprise to find out how we can help you.

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/enterprise/staff 

How UCL’s Grand Challenges programme is connecting researchers with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

uccg04p22 May 2019

Since 2009, the UCL Grand Challenges has set out to inspire, enable and support cross-disciplinary research, and research-related activities through teaching and public engagement. The programme works to facilitate new connections between researchers across the university, and support partnerships beyond it, including with other institutions, in industry and in the voluntary sector, including community groups. Grand Challenges was born of a belief that our university has a responsibility to address the biggest challenges facing humanity, and also the expertise to make a holistic, positive contribution to complex problems.

This year, Grand Challenges is focusing on the ways in which our cross-disciplinary research can address the objectives laid out in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through this, we aim to support the UCL community in developing cross-disciplinary responses to the challenges set out by the SDGs.

What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

The UN identified 17 goals in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the steps countries need to make towards eradicating poverty, tackling inequality, protecting the planet and delivering a just, peaceful society. By aligning the work of UCL Grand Challenges with the SDGs we are able to harness UCL’s expertise to contribute to the global conversation, and facilitate new partnerships, both within the university and beyond it. Over the past ten years, we have seen some truly inspiring research as a result of the partnerships fostered through UCL Grand Challenges, and we hope that by focusing on these themes, we will help to grow and develop UCL’s contribution to tackling global problems. We are also working with UCL’s Global Engagement Office, to ensure that the Grand Challenges and UCL’s Global Strategy work together to maximum effect. We must be more than the sum of our parts!

What we’ve done so far

Grand Challenges was conceived as a mechanism to help break down barriers to cross-disciplinary collaboration, support new partnerships, networks and projects, and bring academics together to share their expertise and find new solutions to complex problems. Among the projects we’ve supported are the Global Disability Hub, based at Here East, which seeks to pioneer new technologies and innovations for a more inclusive world. The Global Disability Hub has grown from a series of networking events and hackathons into an exciting new partnership involving academics from UCL, Loughborough University, and the University of the Arts London to focus on how technology and innovation can be more responsive and inclusive for the one billion people with disabilities across the world.

Through a Small Grant, the UCL Legal Advice Clinic was established, to partner UCL Laws students with a GP practice in East London, to enable people on low incomes to access legal advice and widen access to justice. The clinic has helped people through welfare benefits tribunals, provided housing advice and supported vulnerable people who would not have been able to access legal support. It also helps students gain valuable experience of casework and insight into professional practice, and strengthens UCL’s connection to our local community.

More examples of what the UCL community is doing with Grand Challenges can be found in our blog, and on the website.

How can you get involved?

The 2019-20 Small Grants Call has just opened; awards of up to £7,500 are available to support cross-disciplinary collaborations that develop new ideas and deliver impact for public benefit. We support collaborations across faculties, and also between researchers and professional services staff, and we also encourage collaboration with partners outside UCL, including local authorities, community groups and charitable organisations.

The application form encourages you to consider your proposed project in relation to the SDGs and their targets. You can read more about how to apply, who is eligible, the projects we fund on our website, and sign up for the Newsletter.

Why engage in innovation and enterprise at UCL?

ucypcac26 February 2019

Dr Celia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise)

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of working at UCL is being surrounded by so many brilliant minds with such an abundance of original ideas – and then seeing people realise the potential of those ideas and take them out into the wider world for the benefit of society.

There are many ways to achieve this, including partnering with charities or businesses; developing short courses for professionals and organisations; providing consultancy to industry, government and policy-makers; and commercialising discoveries.

Importantly, these activities, which UCL Innovation & Enterprise facilitates, bring tremendous benefits to academics and their research and teaching work. They can enhance and expand existing research projects, facilitating access to data and helping to frame new questions in a way that would be difficult in a purely academic context. They also help build personal and professional reputation and extend networks, introducing new people who can bring fresh perspectives to research and teaching. In some cases, innovation and enterprise can generate additional personal and institutional income too.

Occasionally, I speak with colleagues who struggle to see how innovation and enterprise are relevant to their particular areas; but I firmly believe there remains a wealth of untapped potential across all areas of UCL to help drive positive change.

In this piece, I’d like to illustrate some projects that attest to the sheer diversity of impact we already have – which might challenge some existing notions around innovation and enterprise and even provide some inspiration.

Enhancing research

You may have recently seen some powerful advertisements across the tube and transport network, as part of Holland & Barrett’s ‘Me.No.Pause’ campaign – profiling a diverse group of women going through the menopause.

The campaign was in response to research led by Professor Jessica Ringrose (Institute of Education) commissioned by the Greater London Authority (GLA), showing less than half (48%) of Londoners feel that ads adequately reflected the capital’s diversity. The ‘Me.No.Pause’ campaign is running for 12 weeks, and is bound to start a fresh debate about diversity and advertising. For Jessica it was an exciting addition to her existing research around digital feminist activism and involved adopting some new research methodologies. She is now exploring a multitude of partnership opportunities that have resulted from the campaign.

Another example of external partnerships enhancing research comes from the lab of Professor Brad Love, who was approached about using Tesco’s loyalty card data to better understand why customers switch products. Human decision making of this kind is well understood in the lab environment. But analysis of Tesco’s real-world dataset of 280,000 anonymized individuals revealed some surprising findings, going against established thinking – for example suggesting that the very act of purchasing can make novel products more desirable. The project not only helped Tesco better understand consumer behaviour, it also led to a paper in Nature Human Behaviour and funded a PhD studentship.

Transforming practices

Innovation and enterprise can have a profound impact on practices and processes in a variety of professional sectors.

UCL’s Integrated Legal Advice Clinic (UCL iLAC) takes a holistic approach to legal problems, acknowledging that they tend to cascade into other areas of life. Since 2016, over 75 students have worked with the centre’s solicitors and advisers, providing pro bono support to over 200 clients – for example in tribunals to secure benefits or overturn pending evictions.

Another example of transforming practice comes from Dr Parama Chaudhury and her colleagues from the Department of Economics and Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics. They are delivering specialist training to diplomats around the world, who work out of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The training covers labour markets, exchange rates, financial and macroeconomic crises and regulation, amongst other economics topics, and could ultimately have a far reaching impact on local economies around the world as well as global policymaking.

Both these examples also point to the great benefit innovation activities have in extending networks, meeting new people and gaining different perspectives. Students from the Legal Advice Clinic go on to work in various fields of law, but retain and apply that sense of social justice and perspective inspired by their often disadvantaged former clients. Meanwhile, Parama and her team are afforded an insight into the challenges of applying economic theory in a turbulent political climate.

It’s important that we see the world from other people’s vantage points.

Collaborate to innovate

I would argue that addressing Grand Challenges such as Global Health, Sustainable Cities and Cultural Understanding needs not only UCL collaboration across different academic disciplines, as already happens, but also collaboration with users – businesses and industry, governments and the public.

One prolific collaborator at UCL is Dr Kenneth Tong (Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering) – who has pioneered many new developments in the telecommunications industry. More recently, Kenneth realised that his technologies could have a transformative impact on global food production, through monitoring localised weather patterns, soil conditions and crop quality – ultimately to increase the efficiency of harvests and maximize crop yields. To bring this vision to life, Kenneth is now collaborating with colleagues across UCL as well as externally with Rothamsted Research.

Studio Wayne McGregor, dancer Catarina Carvalho. Photo by Ravi Deepres

Collaboration also flourishes at the interface between arts and sciences – two sectors that can learn much from each other. The growing UCL Dance Network partners UCL academics and students with organisations including the English National Ballet (ENB), Sadler’s Wells, Studio Wayne McGregor and The Place. Current projects include exploring the potential benefits of dance in Parkinson’s disease and new digital approaches to choreography. Dr Robert Thompson (Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering) spent three months as an Innovator-in-Residence at the ENB, and shared some insights:

“Unless you open yourself to the idea of engaging with different audiences, you’re never going to be inspired as to where your work can have further impact. All the pre-existing ideas I had for collaboration had totally changed.”

Help at hand

As Vice-Provost (Enterprise), more than anything, I want to encourage and champion a culture of innovation and enterprise across UCL. All of the areas highlighted in this piece have received some combination of guidance, support and funding from UCL Innovation & Enterprise. Of course, innovation also happens independently at the individual, research group, department and faculty level; but we are always here to provide advice to make sure that academic benefits are realised. With all the capabilities that UCL needs to support this agenda now sitting as one under UCL Innovation & Enterprise, it’s never been easier to get involved and make these activities integral to teaching and research at UCL.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

Capturing the sheer breadth of innovative activity that takes place at UCL – and other institutions in the UK – will be a key aim of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). It aims to assess, quantify, understand and ultimately improve all the many ways in which we interact with the wider world. It will sit alongside the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in assessing the three core activities in the higher education sector. Indeed, the KEF is very much at the heart of the Government’s Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future.

These are challenging times, and the uncertainty that has marked the wider political and socio-economic landscape over the past few years shows little sign of abating. But what we do know is that the UK, along with much of Europe, will continue moving towards a knowledge-led society and economy in which universities can and should play an increasingly important role.

The radical thinking and innovative culture that is part of the very fabric and history of UCL provides us with the ideal platform to respond to the challenges ahead. There’s a tremendous opportunity here for us to re-shape our society and economy, into one that is healthier, happier, more equitable, productive and resilient. It’s never been more important for us to engage externally to achieve this.

Find out more about how your work can benefit from UCL Innovation & Enterprise and the services we offer: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/enterprise/staff

The Grand Challenges: new collaborations making a difference

uccg04p28 November 2018

UCL Grand ChallengesThe research excellence of UCL’s staff continues to grow and grow, as witnessed by our publications, citations, research successes and our global reputation. However, we must also be more than the sum of our parts, consequently UCL’s commitment to address global challenges reflects our belief in the transformative role of universities through applying academic expertise for public benefit.

Today I’d like to set out our recent progress against that aim through UCL Grand Challenges, our flagship programme for cross-disciplinary collaboration with societal impact, and to draw your attention to some upcoming opportunities for your own engagement.

As an academic community, our understanding of complex problems is enriched and strengthened through the pursuit of both fundamental disciplinary problems and importantly by exploring interactions across and beyond disciplinary boundaries. They enable us to access new perspectives, gain new insights, challenge and test our ideas, and foster discovery.

Since UCL Grand Challenges was launched 10 years ago, it has brought together researchers from across UCL to help us collectively become more impactful. I would highlight five recent accomplishments:

You can find out more about the impact the UCL Grand Challenges has had, here at UCL and beyond, in our new brochure, Developing solutions.

When we launched UCL Grand Challenges, it marked a new approach in higher education, and many universities across the UK have subsequently developed their own programmes designed to foster cross-disciplinarity. We’re glad to see UCL’s cross-disciplinary approach gaining traction with the wider academic community, as indeed it has in funding calls – from the initial Research Council cross-cutting programmes to the more recent Global Challenge Research Fund and the UKRI’s cross-cutting ‘strategic priorities fund’.

Through its Industrial Strategy, the government has also embraced a ‘grand challenges’ approach, and we are engaged with the relevant team at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, including through UCL Grand Challenges, UCL Public Policy and the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose.

In the 2019 UCL Research Strategy, we will set out our goal to foster UCL’s world-leading research, built upon three key aims: Inspire and Empower Research Leadership, Cross Boundaries to Increase Engagement, and Deliver Impact for Public Benefit. We believe that by strengthening our individual and institutional partnerships we can use our combined expertise to make a difference to the world around us, and that this is more than just a lofty ideal – it’s a practical action that is supported at every level of the university.

I’d like to close by bringing to your attention the current opportunities to get involved with UCL Grand Challenges:

  • we have funding opportunities of up to £2,500 open for work related to Embedded Inequalities (Justice & Equality) and Health Systems (Global Health). Please apply online before 3 December. There are also upcoming funding opportunities for work on Migration and Displacement (a pan-UCL Grand Challenge) and Social and Ethical Aspects of Artificial Intelligence (Transformative Technology).
  • we are also hosting two discussions in December, ‘Free Speech in the Age of Social Media’, chaired by Prof Margaret O’Brien (UCL Institute of Education), and ‘Take Back Control: Empowering People in the Welfare State’, chaired by former Labour leader, Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP. Find out more and book tickets here.

The ultimate aim of the Grand Challenges is, to echo UCL 2034, to deliver global impact. We have a responsibility to deploy the collective expertise of our academic community to make a difference not just to each other, or to our disciplines, but to the wider world. We have made enormous strides in embedding a culture of cross-disciplinarity at UCL, a principle that guides not just UCL Grand Challenges, but also the UCL Research Domains, our cross-disciplinary centres and institutes, our doctoral training and many other initiatives. I’m proud of the work that the UCL community has done over the last ten years, and confident that the next decade will see even greater achievements for the benefit of humanity.

Professor David Price

Vice Provost (Research)