How universities can help your business innovate

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships allow even small companies to have moonshots, says law firm CEO Ed Fletcher.

by Ed Fletcher
Last Updated: 27 Sep 2019

In today’s competitive landscape, no company – however big or small – can afford to rest on its laurels. Even businesses in traditional industries are implementing highly complex and sophisticated digital transformation projects that employ cutting-edge technologies such as AI. 

However, these projects can often be very difficult to bring to life, requiring significant monetary investment as well as manpower. For businesses that have a brilliant idea for a project, but perhaps not the funds or the in-house expertise needed to develop it, a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) may be the answer.

What is a KTP?

The Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme is a UK-wide programme that helps businesses to innovate and grow. Run by Innovate UK, the part-government-funded scheme creates dynamic three-way collaborations between businesses, UK universities or research organisations, and suitably qualified graduates, who then work together on approved strategic innovation projects. 

The idea is that a KTP will mutually beneficial all three parties involved. For businesses, they typically help to drive innovation, increase productivity and improve performance. For research organisations, they create business-relevant teaching, research and publishing opportunities. And for graduates, they provide a rewarding employment opportunity and the chance to apply academic knowledge to real world business challenges. 

How does it work?

Any business with an idea for a strategic innovation project that will require outside help is eligible to apply for a KTP grant. Provided they can provide a road map of how to build the project and deliver it, then Innovate UK will consider it.

Businesses without an existing university partner can contact their local Knowledge Transfer Adviser (KT Adviser), who will check the feasibility of an idea and identify the best academic or researcher to work on a project. Businesses that already have a partnership with a research organisation, or know who they would like to work with on a KTP, can apply via that organisation’s KTP office. 

Once an application has been approved, the academic partner will help to recruit a suitable graduate, known as an associate. They will act as the employer of the graduate, who then works at the company for the duration of the scheme – generally between 12 and 36 months, depending on what the project is and the needs of the business.

While KTP schemes are part-funded by a government grant, the business will need to contribute to the salary of the associate, plus the cost of a supervisor who will oversee the scheme. The amount that a business will need to contribute depends on the scale and length of the project, as well as the size of the company. 

Typically, small and medium-sized enterprises contribute around £35,000 per year (about one-third of the project costs), while large businesses contribute around £55,000 per year (half of the project costs). 

What are the benefits?

KTPs are intended to enable businesses of all sizes to be real drivers of innovation, in a way that would not otherwise be possible. Not only does the grant remove some of the financial obstacles to ambitious projects like these, but the stringent application process forces them to evaluate the validity of an idea in minute detail. This helps to ensure they end up with a truly killer concept that will genuinely bring about transformative change. 

Off-the-shelf projects will generally be turned down for a KTP, which results in businesses having to come up with ideas that have never been done before. This is not only invaluable in terms of the growth it will drive, but also means they end up with something unique for which they own the IP, which creates the potential for new business opportunities.

Partnering with people they wouldn’t ordinarily work with brings businesses a much-needed, fresh perspective to issues they may have been facing for many years. KTPs also help to lay the groundwork for new, solid relationships that will bear fruit and add value long after the project is done, especially if businesses decide to apply for subsequent projects. 

Ed Fletcher is CEO at Fletchers Solicitors, which has entered into a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Liverpool, focusing on legal AI 

Image credit: John Wildgoose/Getty Images

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