| 7 minute read

Strategic approaches to SME engagement at University of Oxford

Elena Galán-Muros
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In this week’s episode, we delve into the intricacies of the engagement between small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and universities. Join us as we explore the strategies and challenges faced by experts Charlotte Bell (Senior Business Partnerships Manager) and Meghna Mathur (Business Partnerships Associate), from the University of Oxford’s Medical Sciences Division, and discover how universities can create compelling collaborations with SMEs.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Todd Davey:
Universities regularly think that working with SMEs is difficult and creates a problem for them. How can universities create interesting collaborations with SMEs? Is it realistic to do so?

Charlotte Bell:
When it comes to creating research collaboration opportunities with SMEs, it is quite different than doing it with a large company. With an SME, they are often on a fast trajectory somewhere because of a technology or a target or something they are developing.

For them, a collaboration is going to be quite focused around a question that they have. In a way, that could limit the academic freedom in the way that this question they need answering is not going to be as broad as a larger company’s one. It’s a bit more niche and a bit more time bound.

For smaller companies, the research needs to happen now while for larger companies there is more room for a broader scope, a longer timeframe, and probably a bigger budget.

In terms of how we create these interesting collaborations, the SME-type collaborations would be more SME-led, while the larger company collaborations would be a little bit more co-developed or even suggested by the academics. Finding collaborations with SMEs is like panning for gold compared to with larger companies. There’s thousands of SMEs out there, quite a lot of research-intensive and high-growth SMEs, so how do we find those opportunities to mutually align and work together? Rather than looking for interesting collaborations, we are trying to foster longer-term engagement with SMEs. We are trying to contact them earlier and start a light-touch relationship that allows them to know that we are here, should the opportunity arise that they need to collaborate, and already find their way into a big, complex university like Oxford.

Todd Davey:
How do you then build these relationships into a longer term collaboration?

Charlotte Bell:
It may not be that SMEs would have a longer-term collaboration with you, they could actually fail. Nevertheless, I think we are quite realistic in our expectations as to what collaboration looks like with an SME versus a large company. We work for many years with large companies that we work with in Oxford, and those relationships change.

The SME relationships that we have are either because we know them and they know of us, or we have had smaller interactions around data sharing or materials transfer that haven’t formed into research collaborations yet. We are realistic that they are not the same type of collaboration and the levels of funding and the timeframes will be quite different.

We shouldn’t shy away from collaborating with SMEs. They form an important part of the local and regional economy, nationally and internationally, and some of those SMEs will have a long lifetime and do great things.

Todd Davey:
Meghna, you have done not just a study, but also have interacted with many SMEs. What are the major things that SMEs are looking for in their collaboration?

Meghna Mathur:
That’s a very interesting question, and to base your assumption based on which SMEs are approaching you is difficult. That is why we did a survey to formulate an SME engagement strategy. From that, we have created a list of the main reasons why SMEs want to interact with universities:

  • Outsourcing research and development, which is collaborative research.
  • Accessing Innovate UK bids or any other funding bids that they can apply to by working with universities.
  • Accessing talent, whether that is by providing them jobs or an internship.
  • Accessing facilities, as they often face a lack of facilities that are present at universities.
  • Accessing academics as consultants for the different areas of research that they are doing.
  • Accessing joint scientific networks.
  • Working to improve or bridge a technology gap that they have that will help them improve their products or technology.

Todd Davey:
How do you cater for these different needs? Conceptually, you have different offices that are responsible for different things, like access to talent, access to networks, access to facilities, etc. How do you organise such a complex range of different activities that SMEs want to engage with?

Charlotte Bell:
It is tricky because we are a large, non-hierarchical organisation. We are split into many different divisions: the Medical division, Maths division, Social Sciences division and the Gardens, Libraries and Museums division. We are then split into colleges, or functions, that operate across the university.

There are loads of different places at Oxford University that offer these things to SMEs, and we have done a lot of work to make sure we are clear internally through making a map of all the different things the University offers for SMEs.

We have brought all the functions together in a group that we call the SME Engagers Group, to break down silos in how they work. The first step was to raise awareness of all of the different functions and what they do so, if an SME reaches out to them with a request and they can’t fulfil it, at least they can send them to the function that can.

We are now building on that with the group to find where different functions could work together on SME engagement, like two functions joining together their team and the career service and reaching out to SMEs together to promote what they do so.

We are having a more holistic approach to how we look at SME engagement, so if an SME comes to us and we can’t help them, we send them to a different function inside the University that can support them.

Todd Davey:
How do you select which SMEs your collaborate with?

Meghna Mathur:
We are limited in our resources as a team to support every company, so we have to evaluate whether we would be able to support them in some way or not.

There is an evaluation matrix that we have developed that we use to not get bogged down with just the science about the company or what technology they are working on, but to holistically understand the status of the SME in terms of university collaboration in 3 main categories

  1. Collaborative research potential. Have they worked with universities in the past? Have they applied for any grants that are related to research? Are they doing R&D in-house?
  2. Previous connections with Oxford University. Have they previously collaborated with us? Are they a spin-out of Oxford University?
  3. Financials. How long have they been doing what they are doing? What is their research budget?

These broad three categories are subdivided into multiple elements of how we evaluate which company might have a potential of collaborating with Oxford academics.

Ready for more?

How can your university-industry collaborations be more ethical? Through our consulting, research, and institutional programs, we have done considerable work on understanding and supporting university-industry partnerships, with a first-hand look into some of the key challenges faced. In our article, The road to ethical partnerships: Lessons from university-industry collaborations, we look at dilemmas that can arise in partnerships and share our learnings to show what to keep in mind to make your partnerships mutually beneficial, while also being ethical.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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