Research, Innovation and University Engagement

What is research? This is a question that requires some thought, especially when research is being carried out by a partnership between a university and a company. Our partner Dr Gill Westgate, from Cosmetics Cluster UK (CCUK), looks at research and development in the personal care sector and gives her perspective on university outreach. 

As a skin and hair scientist, when I am designing a research programme it is because there is a fundamental question that can be specifically tackled by a research project, for example in a PhD studentship. However, often the research results fail to answer the original question, but actually helps to generate more questions that can be subject to their own research programmes – and so the student moves into a post-doctoral position and a new area of basic research is created within a University or institute.

So, research can be a self-perpetuating exercise of discovery…it does not have a start, middle and end.

Industrial research, however, operates within a defined scope, timescale and is linked to a business activity, which does have an end – perhaps in a new product launch, or the exploitation of the research findings for business benefit – or indeed the ‘research’ stops because it did not give the ‘right’ answer. My career working in Unilever Research had many examples of this, however, over time a company can trace a thread of many years of research leading to an innovation in the marketplace.

Companies look to work with Universities to access their research labs, equipment, knowledge and people – the latter being academic leaders in their field and the skilled research staff employed to help deliver projects with industry.

My experience in development research partnerships (30+ years working in the private sector as a research leader and 10 years working at the University of Bradford in business development) has taught me that productive projects with companies are founded on very good, often existing personal relationships. These provide trust and a willingness to overcome obstacles such as time setting up contracts and when the project results tell a different story!

In considering how we could do this better; I would suggest the following could be considered:

  • It is who you know – as much as what you know – that counts. So, build and nourish your networks, for example through networking organisations like CCUK and connecting on Linked In. Don’t just be a silent participant – share your voice.
  • Be clear about joint expectations at the outset, particularly on timescales for delivery. Ambition and reality need to match the ability of each organisation to deliver and receive research results and impact.
  • Get a really good understanding about why the work is needed by the company – why now and whether the company has some commercial targets that the project will deliver into.
  • Work out who the enablers are for your research needs. For example, NBIC enables organisations to be introduced to each other and does this through shared networks
  • Spend time in each camp. If you work in a company – see if you can find time to spend time working with a University academic team. If you are an Academic – seeks out grants to enable a secondment to a company and ask for this in your development.

So, for building opportunities for personal care innovation, companies will be greeted warmly by universities that are strongly investing in translational research. However, the first time a company interacts with a university can set the tone for a lasting relationship.

If you are a company looking to harness university applied research, you might be blown away by the breadth and depth of the science, but my advice is to speak next to someone who manages business development in the faculty you would like to work with. They have done this before – they understand the university procedures and, like me, sit on the border between the science and its exploitation and absolutely love being there.

Dr Gill Westgate is a business development manager at the University of Bradford, Faculty of Life Science. She has made a career of working at the interface of academic research and industry, having achieved a strong publication record of research, but also many years working closely with brand teams in companies. Gill is a co-founder of CCUK, a networking organisation dedicated to supporting the UK cosmetics and beauty sector that helps companies engage with research and with each other locally, nationally and internationally.

Visit the CCUK website to find out more about how together with CCUK we have reached out to industry and encouraged SME’s to come forward and join NBIC as an industry partner, for networking and signposting to academic expertise in oral microbiome/biofilms.

Contact Gill:

Dr Gill Westgate, CCUK Director