Joined-up thinking

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The Independent Online

University spin-outs - particularly from universities with strong records in science and technology, such as Imperial (source of Finsbury Orthopaedics) and Cambridge (where internet company Autonomy and others started out) - have become a popular way to start a business. But they are not the only means by which academia can help industry.

In the East of England, a group known as i10 is trying to get small and medium sized enterprises talking with universities, to understand how they can help each other.

The driving force behind the concept, which is about halfway through a three-year Government-supported programme, is Matthew Bullock, a financier who was involved in the "Cambridge phenomenon", which in the late 1980s played a big part in making the city the centre of technology-based businesses it is today. Now the chief executive of the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society, he rather graphically likens the role of the group of 10 universities - including Cambridge, Cranfield and Essex - to organising dances for people to meet like-minded folk. "There are a lot of people who believe that industry/university relationships are really complicated and need lots of arrangement," he says, adding that i10's idea is to start with a "more basic snog behind the bike sheds and then go back to somebody's flat."

Although Bullock stresses that it is still "terribly early days", a number of businesses have already - so to speak - got into bed with universities as a result of this approach. The project has attracted such interest that it is expected to feature in next month's review for the Treasury by former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert on the collaboration of industry and academia.

As one who has been on both sides of the relationship between universities and business, Bullock knows they tend to share a "dialogue of the deaf and the dumb," where industry can be pretty deaf and universities dumb.

But among those who have started to break through this communication barrier is IRISYS, a company set up in 1996 to develop commercial products from military sensor technology. Their infrared devices can count people - helping organisations track numbers and movements of customers - or be used to monitor heat levels in machinery and component elements. IRISYS technology has been used to provide instant checks on travellers' temperatures during the recent SARS epidemic.

The company needed to carry out extensive research and testing to adapt the technology for commercial use, develop low-cost products and assess manufacturing processes.

It found out that Cranfield University had research programmes studying this technology and got involved with this work - helping to fund the research and benefiting from the results.

The idea is that the project involves itself less in individual matchmaking exercises and more in providing the infrastructure that allows these pairings to happen. As a result, the group is currently developing a website, due to be launched in the coming weeks, that should make this sort of contact easier through enabling SMEs with queries or problems that they think academics can help with to access a single site and have the information passed around all participating universities.

With networking groups in such industries as biotechnology and multimedia starting to become interested, momentum seems to be gathering. Which will be welcome news to the Treasury, where the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, sees better links between industry and academia as vital to improving Britain's productivity record.