Speech – THE Innovation & Impact Summit, Seoul, South Korea: Panel Address, 3 April 2019

‘How can universities collaborate with industry and stay neutral for society? Collaboration, impact and ethics’

The theme of this summit is innovation and impact.  This is precisely where the University of Surrey’s international reputation lies.  Our proud history of significant impact in many areas, of which I will give a few examples later, is a result of our close collaboration with industry. Such a legacy and ethos of impact is something that attracted me, a Chinese Australian, to move across the globe to lead this fine institution in the UK. At Surrey we believe in partnerships that look beyond transactional relationships, towards long-term strategic and sustainable platforms.

At Surrey, our partnership approach represents our competitive advantage.  Successful partnerships with business and industry also provide practice-centred education for students and impactful research to positively change the world.

Collaboration multiplies resources and expertise, and delivers amazing results. But, like any partnership, it’s better if all parties are aware beforehand of the possible conflicts and pitfalls that can result from the ‘marriage’ of inherently different individuals.

What can universities offer to businesses?

Partnerships between academia and industry must be founded on clear and shared understandings of how each partner can add value to the other.

  • Industry has much to offer to academia, not least funding, access to real-world problems, insights into technology trends, and market intelligence. In the new age of open innovation, researchers must work through multiple and varied channels, just as the outcomes of their work will travel to multiple and varied destinations.
  • What academia can offer to industry is similarly varied. Companies value access to highly skilled talent – primarily graduates, but also in the form of expertise, training services, and industry network facilitation. Innovative companies look to universities, on the one hand, for new solutions to existing problems and, on the other hand, for pipelines to deliver future innovation. And where universities benefit from the diversified funding afforded by business, companies can leverage the research capacity that academia has developed through long-term public funding.

5GIC, an example of the impact of collaboration —

Our 5G Innovation Centre has attracted big global names as strategic partners. In fact, this unique initiative is a showcase for what partnerships can achieve. From global industry powerhouses like Huawei and Samsung, to partner universities, towns and governments, to more than 75 SMEs – nothing has had quite the same inspiring effect on innovation as the 5G Centre.  Thanks to this collaboration, we were able to host both the first demonstration in Europe of a 5G network-controlled driverless car, and the national testbed that supports one million users.

RemoveDEBRIS –

RemoveDEBRIS is another successful collaboration that was widely reported across major news channels, and really captured the public’s imagination. University of Surrey scientists and engineers led a successful mission to test debris removal technology. While it might sound like a simple idea, the complexity of using a net in space to capture a piece of debris took many years of planning, engineering and coordination between the Surrey Space Centre, Airbus and our partners.

Health care –

In the health care area, we developed Technology Integrated Health Management system in collaboration with the hospital trusts in Surrey and several IoT manufacturers.  This has been rolled out to more than 100 dementia patients’ homes, giving them better and connected care with smart “Internet of Things” technology and expert advice. The project won the Best Mental Health Initiative Award in 2017.

From my own experience, and I am sure the experience of many of you here today, making an academia-industry partnership work is not easy, and needs plenty of mutual understanding and joint effort.  Let’s look at the major differences in the nature, culture and priorities of business and HE institutions:

  • Business will prioritise profit and must respond rapidly to market forces;
  • Academia will look for sustained excellence, long-term reputation, and infrastructure growth.
  • Business will tend towards low-risk ventures;
  • Academic research can be more speculative and exploratory in nature.

By way of example, intellectual property can be a point of divergent expectations: in my experience, negotiations over its ownership have occasionally threatened to derail more constructive discussions about an innovation’s best applications. These different perspectives must be understood and managed, with robust mechanisms to review and assess outcomes of the partnership. More often than not, a middle ground can be found that will prove fertile for fruitful collaborations.


There are some common pitfalls in such relationships between academia and industry.

Companies sometimes assume the role of President to be directly equivalent to a CEO. They are CEOs in legal terms, but in practice they are more like the Head academic, leading and inspiring the academic community. Presidents are accountable to multitudes of stakeholders, but no shareholders.

The motivations of academics can also be misread. The key is transparency and constant communication across formal and informal channels, with enough face-to-face contact to address social needs.

Universities are many in number and can appear opaque in their operations to outsiders. Single points of contact are always useful, alongside easy access to information about the expertise within individual departments and centres.

In many countries and sectors, facilitation or brokerage is available: e.g. industry and professional organisations, not least regional cluster associations.

Similarly, universities will need to develop governance structures appropriate to the partnership at hand, which consider the industry partner’s needs across the short-, medium- and long-terms.

The Question of Ethics

 However, there are legitimate concerns around the issues of academic freedom and scientific credibility on the one hand, and supporting the strategic priorities and needs of industry on the other.  Academic integrity could be compromised if individuals don’t have clear guidance or reliable judgement on potential conflicts of interest. It is vitally important that universities do retain academic freedom and neutrality while collaborating with industry or other sponsors, especially if our research is to maintain public support and strategic relevance and impact.

This delicate balance is the university’s responsibility: to set clear guidelines and principles on ethically and legally acceptable demands and expectations from funders, what constitutes conflict of interest for individuals, and what transparent governance and communication mechanisms are needed.  Academic researchers must be bound by such an institutional policy.

The university should firmly rule out any funding with strings attached that could compromise academic freedom and integrity, while being flexible on intellectual properties and negotiated terms on freedom to publish and to carry out future research work in the area. Any question mark hanging over our ethical position reduces impact significantly, and undermines productive collaboration.

The Key to Successful Partnerships

Finding complementary strengths and ambitions is vitally important. Any successful partnership or collaboration should take a holistic view of the whole spectrum of possible outcomes: from talent and skill transfer, to capacity and reputation building, to social impact.

Thank you.