Boosting innovation through SME-university collaborations

Posted on 3 Jul 2017 by The Manufacturer

Small firms with big ideas are a critical component in driving the nation towards a knowledge economy – but SMEs are often left out of the innovation system. Dr Nicky Athanassopoulou discusses key enablers and barriers to improving interfaces between universities and SMEs that boost innovation.

Dr Nicky Athanassopoulou, senior indutrial fellow at IfM ECS.

SMEs are not just the backbone of the UK manufacturing sector, but the economy as a whole. SMEs comprise almost 99.5% of all manufacturing businesses in the country, and they make a significant contribution to innovation-led growth, job creation, and new products, processes and services.

Therefore, supporting small business innovation is critical for enhancing the competitiveness of UK manufacturing.

However, most SMEs often do not have the time, capacity or funds to partner with universities or research and technology organisations (RTOs). We know how vital SMEs are to a thriving economy, but we need a better understanding of how to incorporate them more effectively into the innovation system.

The Institute for Manufacturing Education and Consultancy Services (IfM ECS) at the University of Cambridge is currently leading a pilot to identify the enablers, barriers and best methods to create successful one-to-one knowledge transfer between SMEs and universities.

This is part of Science2Society – a European Union programme that is looking to increase innovation efficiency by improving the interfaces between the key players, i.e. universities, RTOs and industry.

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There is a real interest in improving these connections, and Science2Society involves 17 partners from seven countries and includes both small firms, such as i2m, Spirit Design, Bax and Company, and Innoget, and major companies, such as Siemens, Toyota Motors Europe, Fiat Research Centre, and ATOS.

Creating conditions for successful knowledge transfer

Over the years, universities have developed a number of different ways to collaborate with business. Companies, for example, may base their offices on university campuses, or engage in collaborative R&D projects or foster cocreative relationships between students or academics and businesses in a noncompetitive environment.

These systems tend to work well for two-way, open innovation technology transfer, especially between universities and large businesses. But they are less effective for knowledge transfer, especially with SMEs. Smaller companies often need management knowledge if they are to leverage their resources and change their practices to better manage their technology and to innovate.

Innovation Collaboration Workforce Meeting - Stock ImageThere are some SME-specific activities provided by some universities through training courses and direct consultancy. However, this model tends to be a one-way transfer of knowledge from universities to SMEs. As a result, universities (and, by extension, society) lack SME input into informing future research.

What do SMEs need?

In SMEs, everyone – including the CEO – is often working hands-on in the business, leaving very little time to work on developing their firm’s strategy or capabilities. And most do not have the resources to pay external advisors for long periods of time to provide solutions. What they need are very efficient, robust methods for building their capabilities, and which deliver practical outcomes quickly.

IfM ECS – with more than 15 years of research-informed work with SMEs – developed an approach which does just that. This typically involves a prioritisation exercise, which helps the firm understand its strengths and weaknesses and creates an action-plan to address them. Often, as a next step, we use the Business Strategy Tool to help the company assess and define its strategy, with an emphasis on innovation to boost business growth.

These tools have evolved and matured from our interaction with more than 800 SMEs. Critical to this process is two-way knowledge transfer with small businesses, which has led directly to the development of new tools. For example, we have developed a Creativity Tool that helps companies generate innovation ideas, a Portfolio and Selection Framework to help companies select innovation projects using a set of transparent criteria, and a Marketing Tool that logically flows from the Strategy Tool and can be used to understand existing or new markets, customers, and appropriate product offerings.

Towards a better model

The role of IfM ECS in the Science2Society programme is to better understand the factors that are important for making direct knowledge transfer from universities to SMEs and to increase this type of interaction. The aim is to develop a model that will help SMEs access university technology management knowledge while feeding SME knowledge into research.

We want to have a positive and lasting impact on the companies that participate in the programme, as well as to increase the level of understanding about how companies from different countries differ (or indeed are similar) in how they engage with academia and to what degree they draw value from the approaches deployed.

As part of the Science2Society project we have already worked with six SMEs in the UK and Austria. We have used our approaches to prioritisation and business strategy to test and establish structures and practices that will help inform how SMEs and universities can work most effectively together. By establishing best practice for SME-university knowledge-transfer arrangements, our goal is to increase both the quantity and quality of support that is available for manufacturing and technology based SMEs.

IfM ECS: working with SMEs

IfM Education and Consultancy Services (IfM ECS) is the knowledge transfer arm of the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing.

It provides a number of consultancy services designed specifically for SMEs, often delivered through funded support programmes such as Sharing in Growth in the aeronautical and civil nuclear sector.

It also runs a membership scheme to give SMEs access to the IfM’s strategic, technical and innovation expertise in order to build their capabilities.

Further details are available at:



Dr Nicky Athanassopoulou is a Senior Industrial Fellow with IfM Education and Consultancy Services (IfM ECS), the knowledge transfer arm of the IfM. She is responsible for developing custom-designed services to support the strategy and innovation activities of companies of all sizes, and is leader of the Science2Society University Knowledge Transfer pilot.