Don’t overlook ‘people flow’ pathway
“Over 90 percent of our postgraduate students go on to work for Rolls-Royce or similar companies in the aerospace industry...This is a great way of transferring research findings and knowledge to the very heart of industry,”Professor Martin Bache, Swansea University
An aspect of Pathways to Impact that is sometimes overlooked when researchers are thinking about their applications is the knowledge exchange that occurs from the flow of people from research into industry and vice versa. For Professor Martin Bache, Director of the University Technology Centre (UTC) in Materials at Swansea University, people exchange is an important route for research dissemination.
“Over 90 percent of our postgraduate students go on to work for Rolls-Royce or similar companies in the aerospace industry. By the end of their EngD study our Research Engineers are recognised as a world expert in their field and are much sought after as engineering recruits. This is a great way of getting research findings and knowledge to the very heart of industry,” comments Professor Bache.
Professor Bache’s research is at the applied end of the scale. The UTC in which he and his team work is the result of long standing collaboration between Swansea University and Rolls-Royce, now bolstered by strategic support from EPSRC and the UK government. Swansea UTC is a key member of a Materials Partnership with the Universities of Birmingham and Cambridge. The mission of the partnership is to address front-line materials requirements for Rolls-Royce gas turbines designed for aero-engine, marine and land based power generation applications.
Swansea’s relationship with Rolls-Royce stretches back more than 30 years. It has developed an expertise in the field of mechanical characterisation and property evaluation and, most importantly, has won the confidence of Rolls-Royce such that Swansea’s research has directly contributed to component design over these decades.
Working so closely with a large global business effectively requires running a university research unit as a business. Professor Bache explains:
“We are different to many other research units as we have a full appreciation of the commercial aspects of our work. We use legal teams to draw up contracts and have a professional administration structure to ensure information remains confidential. We adhere to non-disclosure agreements, even the individual PhD and EngD students. We also have to manage time pressure. We have a significant amount of research on our books and we have to be responsive to commercial demands while maintaining the quality of our research.”
Background and foreground IP require careful consideration. Rolls-Royce has a licensing agreement in place to allow the university a share of the foreground IP, while the university can retain the background IP. Under all circumstances, the company recognise the academic need for dissemination and proactively encourage the UTC research team to publish papers on their findings.
“Rolls Royce is very supportive of me and my colleagues publishing information from research that comes out of industrial work. They will review draft publications for commercially sensitive information, but they understand our motivations as researchers and the need to publish new discoveries in open literature.”
Though Professor Bache is in the fortunate position of having the pathways to impact for his research clearly defined, particularly the economic and commercial impact, there is no place for complacency. Maintaining a good personal relationship with his contacts at Rolls-Royce and understanding the strategic direction of the business overall are still vitally important.
“When you are collaborating with a commercial organisation it is useful to find out about the current focus of their business because this will feed into their technical research strategy. If you understand this, it is easier to identify where their future research interests might lie and helps you to initiate research ideas” says Bache.
Personal relationships are also important. “There is now an institutional relationship in place due to the number of years the university and Rolls-Royce have collaborated, but people change and it is important to maintain a good working relationship from the senior level through to individual project managers. This is as true for me at it is for our post-graduate students. It is a skill that I hope they learn and take with them throughout their careers whether that is in academia or in industry.”
Institution: University Technology Centre in Materials, Swansea University