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Industry, Academia Align In The U.K.

Financial and scientific opportunities draw U.K. companies and academics ever closer

by Alex Scott
January 28, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 4

Credit: Aesica Pharmaceuticals
Aesica’s researchers have turned to the University of Bradford to develop innovative products.
Researcher in white lab coat with hands in fume cupboard.
Credit: Aesica Pharmaceuticals
Aesica’s researchers have turned to the University of Bradford to develop innovative products.

Alliances between U.K. industry and universities are intensifying. Universities are benefiting from the income that industry partnerships bring, while industry is securing scientific knowledge at a modest cost. Skeptics warn such alliances compromise U.K. academics’ wider responsibilities, but school officials say the concerns are unfounded.

Two initiatives in northern England show how industry and academia are stepping up chemistry-related research alliances. In an era of reduced corporate R&D spending, companies are looking for research expertise outside their own ranks, and finding it at universities. And universities, faced with shrinking public research money, are using these collaborations to keep their science investigations going.

A recently formed pact between Akzo­Nobel and the University of Manchester is seeking to leverage the university’s position at the forefront of scientific understanding about corrosion. And METRC, a five-year-old technology transfer organization that links universities and industry, is accelerating its creation of partnerships, including those related to pharmaceutical chemistry.

The corrosion collaboration is headed by Stuart Lyon, the 55-year-old director of the Corrosion & Protection Centre within Manchester’s School of Materials. He was appointed AkzoNobel Professor Of Corrosion Control in 2012 as part of a five-year, $6.7 million investment by the paints and chemicals company. Although the corrosion center works closely with industry, those duties don’t distract the university from its mandate to undertake fundamental science, Lyon insists.

Working in a former 19th-century industrial mill in the heart of the Manchester campus, Lyon is leading a team of several graduate and Ph.D. chemists and materials scientists to determine how certain metals and the impurities within them can lead to corrosion and how corrosion can be prevented by the application of advanced coatings.

Corrosion of infrastructure is estimated to cost the world 2–3% of economic output, equivalent to $2.2 trillion each year. Knowledge being developed by Lyon and his team could be applied by AkzoNobel to reduce this financial burden, he says. If Lyon has his way, stories about the need for continual repainting of structures such as the Forth Bridge, a 19th-century rail bridge that connects England with Scotland, will become urban legends.

New diagnostic tools, including a high-speed tomography unit that provides detailed three-dimensional pictures at the nanoscale, will be the key to better understanding the interaction of substrates and coatings. The development of such techniques means that only now can basic questions about corrosion and “how paints work” be answered, Lyon says.

“We couldn’t do it without the University of Manchester,” says Simon Gibbon, AkzoNobel’s corrosion protection community of practice leader. “They have a breadth of materials understanding that we don’t have. We think of things from the coating down; they approach the subject from the metal up.”

AkzoNobel plans to apply knowledge gained from what it describes as a “landmark strategic partnership” with Manchester to develop novel anticorrosion coatings, a $2 billion-per-year business for the firm. AkzoNobel’s relationship with the university “is all about mutual trust and understanding. I don’t see any risks,” Gibbon says.

“This is standard business for us,” says professor Colin Bailey, vice president of the university and dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Physical Sciences. “It is not about cash and ‘cash-strapped times.’ We have always worked closely with industry,” Bailey says. Nonetheless, he says “the number of strategic partnerships has increased significantly in the past couple of years.”

Indeed, the Faculty of Engineering & Physical Sciences, a unit of the university, has relationships with more than 300 industrial partners that bring in more than $100 million annually, a good part of the unit’s total revenue of about $350 million.

The corrosion center has more than 20 postdoctoral research assistants and almost 70 Ph.D students supported by a variety of sources, including industrial research collaborators, the U.K. government, and the European Union. The center’s industrial collaborators include BP, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, and Airbus.

Manchester is just one of many British universities expanding ties to industry. The schools are being encouraged by several initiatives promoting partnerships between industry and academia. The U.K.’s Royal Society, for example, has made 2013 its Year of Science & Industry. The aim of the initiative is to showcase excellence in U.K. industrial science and strengthen links between the society, industry, academia, and the public. The society plans to run a series of events to promote such links during the year.

Sheffield, England-based METRC represents a consortium of 11 schools in northern England—the heartland of the country’s chemical industry—that are actively seeking research partnerships with industry. “We have relationships with all 11 universities and know who to go to for certain expertise,” says Simon Butler, manager of METRC. Manchester is one of the 11 university members.

Credit: Shutterstock
The University of Manchester’s research could enable AkzoNobel to make better anticorrosion coatings for structures such as the Forth Bridge in Scotland.
Forth bridge, connecting England and Scotland.
Credit: Shutterstock
The University of Manchester’s research could enable AkzoNobel to make better anticorrosion coatings for structures such as the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

The universities have financially backed METRC since the withdrawal of central government funding in 2011. METRC, in turn, provides grants to industry of $8,000 to $40,000 on a cost-matching basis. “If companies haven’t worked with the university before, it’s a good way for them to lessen the risk of working with that university,” Butler says. The initial project is typically small, but it can open the door to larger follow-up grants including those from the European Commission, he says.

METRC’s efforts have led to 18 research collaborations between industry and its university members since 2011. It is on track to increase that number to between 50 and 60 by the end of 2014. By 2021, METRC projects will have generated 99 technology jobs and annual sales of more than $146 million from an initial investment of $8 million, according to a study by Deloitte, an accounting firm.

METRC started out by specializing in molecular engineering and nanotechnology, “but now we have a pretty broad research base,” Butler says. The organization’s most common projects are pharmaceutical-related. Two-thirds are with small companies.

Newcastle upon Tyne, England-based pharmaceutical chemicals firm Aesica Pharmaceuticals has a project cofunded by METRC in which Durham University and the University of Leeds are developing processes to improve cost efficiency and increase manufacturing capacity at Aesica’s site in Cramlington, England. In another collaboration, the University of Bradford is applying a hot-melt extrusion technology it developed to enhance the bioavailability of certain active pharmaceutical ingredients being produced by Aesica.

For academic institutions such as Bradford, income from industry collaborations is important. “We can’t rely on income from student numbers anymore,” says Riddhi Y. Shukla, business development manager at the school’s Centre for Pharmaceutical Engineering Science.

Rather than steer Bradford away from basic research, however, the partnership with Aesica has given academics there a reason to go into certain areas of fundamental science, Shukla maintains. “We have time to do the research and to push the boundaries of science further. We have the luxury that we can do the blue-sky research,” she says.

Ensuring that fundamental research has an end benefit to society is also important, according to Shukla. “Most academics want their technology used commercially and to have some meaning,” she says.

The University of Bradford and Aesica are eyeing further projects together. “We have a few other leads on the horizon,” Shukla says. Aesica also is beginning to identify potential technology collaborations outside the U.K. and has entered discussions with organizations from Finland, the U.S., and other countries, says Barrie Rhodes, the firm’s director of technology development.

“We are putting less emphasis on developing new technologies on our own and seeking partners who can do it better than we can,” Rhodes says. Although pharmaceutical companies have long collaborated with U.K. universities, it is rare for contract manufacturing organizations such as Aesica to form such tie-ups, Rhodes says. The company is following in the footsteps of information technology and automotive firms that for years have successfully exploited academic collaborations in the U.K., he notes.

Given the enthusiasm in both industry and academic quarters about alliances, few people are willing to question their impact on the traditional role of universities as teaching and research institutions. One who did asked to remain anonymous for fear of an adverse effect on his business activities.

“I have experienced professors in the U.K. being more interested in getting grants and doing consulting than teaching and fundamental research,” says the source, who has worked closely with academia and has been R&D director for a number of chemical firms. “Collaborative effort with business is how the professors further themselves rather than the students. Deans at some universities do not want to touch this subject.”

Alliances between industry and universities in the U.K. are becoming ever more important for both sets of partners. With strong benefits emerging from such collaborations, skeptics will have to work hard if they are to be heard.


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