4 ways universities can solve business problems

Why you should look for university help. An introduction to the services and expertise higher education institutions can offer your business

Universities are one of the great untapped sources of affordable help for small businesses in the UK.

Packed with young undergraduate talent looking for experience, eminent experts and authorities in their field, facilities a small business could only dream of, and a willingness to work commercially, universities are the hotbeds of knowledge business owners and innovators are still waking up to. T

his cocktail of talent, knowledge, networks, facilities and quite possibly funding – as many of the universities also work closely with venture capital firms, corporations looking for innovation, and also run their own incubators – could both get a business off the ground or help it grow.

Here’s how:

1. Access to knowledge

Academic researchers are on the frontline of knowledge. They are asking the questions and making the discoveries that will create future value within the economy.

The time lines on which they are working may well be too extended for you. But academics also have the expertise within their field to lay out all the options and point you in the right direction to sort out your challenges in real-time.

Even in a medium-sized research university, you will find a thousand academics working on nearly all aspects of human endeavour. Science. Commerce. Design. Digital media. Put the right question to the right academic and you will get a rigorous answer that can lift your whole business.

You might be surprised by the enthusiasm of the response from experts who are going to see their technology appear in the real world for the first time. The chances of having such a meaningful dialogue are improving all the time.

Over the last 10 years, universities have put in place mechanisms to handle projects of all sizes. You can start with short, initial studies and build up into more ambitious collaborations.

2. Access to talent

In attracting the best minds to answer the toughest questions, universities act as another source of competitive advantage for smaller companies: training graduates in the high-level scientific, commercial and creative skills on which future economic performance is going to depend.

As they have in transferring knowledge, universities are developing a more flexible set of mechanisms for smaller enterprises to access that talent. Alongside traditional recruitment, you can bring in graduates on internships and placements at any point in the year, not just at the end of the summer term.

3. Access to funding

This flow of knowledge and talent into the economy is becoming central to public policy. Universities are becoming leading players in supporting business regionally and nationally. They are often able to draw on public funds to make different forms of collaboration happen.

Many, for instance, run innovation vouchers worth between £3,000 and £5,000 to encourage initial projects between universities and small businesses. All are heavily engaged in placing graduates within business to pursue innovative projects, saving you two-thirds of the normal cost.

Most can advise you on how to set up collaboration in such a way to draw on national or European schemes. Some enterprises are even participating in funded consortiums as a way of driving their growth.

As well as public funds, the commercial teams at universities, particularly those in enterprise and innovation centres, have good links with local networks of investors or may even be running their own funds. Alongside such equity, more and more are looking to turn it into ‘smart money’ by bringing in coaches and advisors to keep your plan on track.

4. Platforms for growth

Such proximity to those in the know can make all the difference in launching an innovation. It can put you in a good position to keep bouncing ideas off the research team, as well as staying in touch with the university’s commercial office.

Many universities now offer space to ventures under their wing with a view to letting them grow flexibly. Usually, these are accompanied by a business advisory service. You can start as a virtual tenant, before taking a desk or a room in an incubator. Once you scale up, you can then move to offices at the innovation centre and even run operations on a business park.

Whether or not you are located on campus, you can keep yourself in the flow of ideas, look for solutions and spot potential candidates by joining any one of a number of business-to-academic networks. Your local university will be able to plug you into anything relevant. At the national level, a series of specialist networks are run through the Technology Strategy Board, which you are free to join.

As well as their traditional role in mapping out the future, universities are becoming an integral part of what anyone in business can achieve today.

Roofer-turned-inventor Trevor Wakefield talks about his product launch, in collaboration with Wolverhampton University, here.

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