UKRI’s commercialisation plan: from ambition to action

Business persons walking and working around the office building

Tony Soteriou highlights the ambition of UKRI’s commercialisation team to help tackle society’s greatest challenges.

I joined UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in February 2020 as Director of UKRI’s commercialisation shared capability. This was a new post and team, created following discussions at the UKRI Board with the aim to strengthen UKRI’s overall approach to supporting commercialisation of research.

A bit about me…

First thing’s first, I’m passionate about research and innovation. In total I have over 27 years of working in research management in the public sector, with all my roles involving working across:

  • publicly funded R&I
  • universities and other research organisations
  • industry.

My first experience of research management, after undertaking a PhD in Biochemistry at Cardiff University and postdoctoral research at the University of Bristol, was with the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Before joining UKRI, I was Deputy Director for Research Faculty, Infrastructure and Growth, within the Department of Health and Social Care for over nine years. My responsibilities included:

  • leading on industry research and development (R&D) relations
  • supporting and promoting the contribution of health research to economic growth
  • funding research infrastructure, skills and careers.

Prior to that, my posts included acting as Director of Research in a large mental health NHS Trust, and head of research programmes within the South West NHS.

Research commercialisation and UKRI’s role

So what is research commercialisation and why is it important? Definitions of commercialisation differ, but our working definition is:

The process by which new or improved technologies, products, processes and services (arising through research) are brought to market. It requires an intent and mindset to successfully progress along the technical and commercial readiness pathways.

This definition aims to be inclusive of all disciplines and remits of councils, although it may differ from a narrower definition focussing on later-stage activities undertaken by companies.

There are many ways in which the research and innovation that UKRI funds and supports:

  • produce impact
  • contribute to the economy and benefits to society.

Research commercialisation is one important way through which research and innovation makes a difference.

The government’s innovation strategy highlights the central role UKRI plays in supporting the UK’s research commercialisation. However, research commercialisation is multifaceted and non-linear. We need to consider how UKRI can best facilitate and accelerate this process by:

  • providing the right support at the right time
  • addressing the ‘commercialisation needs’ of our varied communities, including researchers and industry.

The goals of the new team

The small commercialisation shared capability team aims to strengthen UKRI’s strategic approach in research commercialisation. Also, to facilitate councils working together to better support the delivery of innovations that meet market, user and societal needs.

Our work complements and builds links between some key existing council roles and activities, including:

  • Innovate UK’s role in supporting business-led innovations and commercialisation
  • Research England’s role in supporting English higher education providers’ knowledge exchange and commercialisation of IP and wider knowledge assets
  • research councils’ schemes that:
    • realise impacts from research including through commercialisation
    • support for commercialisation from owned or strategically funded research institutes, facilities, and campuses.

Our team includes myself, Alex Chaix as Deputy Director of Commercialisation, and Sarah Harries as Executive Assistant. I am delighted that:

  • Heather Macklyne, currently in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will soon be joining as the new Head of Commercialisation
  • Robert Sowden will also shortly join the team as UKRI Senior Commercialisation Manager.

We work very closely, in what we like to consider is an extended team, with Freddie Jones and Joely Kellard in UKRI Strategy, and with analysts Lyuba Dimitrova and Simona Battipaglia.

I believe strongly that the aim of the commercialisation shared capability is not to centralise activities, but to work collectively right across UKRI. Therefore, perhaps most importantly, it is essential for our team to work very closely, and to co-create and co-deliver, with knowledge exchange, translation and commercialisation leads within each of the councils.

We meet regularly, both on an individual and small group basis, and we also meet through the monthly UKRI commercialisation coordination group.

Addressing the need for harmonisation

So what work is actually happening to strengthen UKRI’s research commercialisation?

One example is the work across research councils to harmonise Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs). IAAs are institutional-level awards which support development of research impact including commercialisation.

Previously, research organisations had to bid separately to each research council, negotiating a variety of differing:

  • application closing dates
  • durations of funding
  • rules for what they could apply for.

Once successful, research organisations needed to manage multiple reporting arrangements and grant terms and conditions.

From engagement with the research community and evidence of impacts, it is clear that these awards are valued and drive a range of impacts from research including through early commercialisation. However, there was a clear need for harmonisation.

IAA funding opportunity

Following work across research councils, we launched the new UKRI harmonised IAA funding opportunity in July. It encompasses approximately £100 million total funding over three years, open to UK universities and other research organisations. This new harmonised funding opportunity included:

  • a single application process and deadline
  • standardised aims and objectives, permitted activities and costs across all the councils.

Importantly, funding for new awards will now be for a longer term of three years, and will support the best opportunities for developing research impact, irrespective of where the original research was funded.

We received 113 applications from across the UK by the closing date of 6 October. Research organisations were asked to complete a single institutional section followed by council or discipline sections depending on which disciplines they wished to apply for.

Approaches to equality, diversity and inclusion, as well as responsible innovation were also requested in the application for the first time.

Feedback has been very positive with research institutions reporting that the new harmonised approach has allowed them to strengthen management and leadership of IAAs. The harmonisation approach both for applications and reporting progress significantly reduces bureaucracy for research organisations. Whilst at the same time, strengthening research impact and research commercialisation.

Next steps to a more connected framework

Another area of focus is to develop a new UKRI research commercialisation finding framework, which is a commitment for UKRI in the government’s innovation strategy. The aim of the framework will be to agree guiding principles and best practices in supporting commercialisation of research identified through:

  • previous evaluations
  • UKRI data
  • feedback from research organisations and industry.

Read the 2019 biomedical catalyst impact evaluation.

Read the MRC translational research 2008-19.

The principles can be applied to any UKRI funding and support programmes that fund research commercialisation, to maximise outcomes for the economy and society, taking account of current approaches already employed.

UKRI already has many of the programmes needed to supercharge UK research commercialisation, helping researchers and businesses to work together. However, these programmes aren’t always a connected as is needed.

Therefore, the framework will also catalyse better connectivity between existing and future UKRI research commercialisation programmes and interventions, to provide greater continuity of UKRI research commercialisation funding.

And finally…

I have very much enjoyed working as part of UKRI so far. What I find truly inspiring is the breadth, variety and quality of research and innovation, people and organisations that UKRI works with, funds and supports.

I sincerely believe that strengthening UKRI research commercialisation is a vital way in which to help tackle society’s greatest challenges, and at the same time contributing to the economy and improving people’s lives.

Top image:  Credit: pixelfit, Getty Images

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