Pro-Vice chancellor professor Richard Williams OBE talks TM through the university’s commitment to industrial research with commercial clout.
The University of Birmingham has strong experience in taking experimental technologies to market in partnership with some of the UK’s biggest companies. The university has a long standing strategic relationship with Rolls- Royce due to the strength of its School of Metallurgy and Materials.
Working with the engine manufacturer, the university developed a new technique to produce titanium alloy components for jet engines. Rather than mill the component out of titanium, producing large amounts of waste, the new technique takes powdered alloy and presses it into shape. The technology was adopted by Rolls-Royce ten years ago and has enabled the company to make more complex components using only one process, resulting in a 90% time saving and significantly reduced costs. The university recently reaffirmed its relationship with Rolls-Royce by securing a £60m contract to build a new High Temperature Research Centre which should be operational by 2015. The team at the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences also works on metamaterials – ‘miracle’ materials which are constructed from metals and minerals, but whose precise shape, geometry, size, orientation and arrangement affects waves of light or sound in an unconventional manner. Recently, metamaterials were used to create a Harry Potter-style ‘invisibility cloak’ but they also hold massive potential for revolutionising communications and personal technology.
Proving strong links with international science and engineering networks, Birmingham also played a key role in the development of the ATLAS experiment on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. All of the primary detection systems on the ATLAS were developed at Birmingham, fabricated on the university campus and installed in Switzerland by university engineers and scientists.
Home and away
Companies are increasingly working with universities to take advantage of one of the UK economy’s greatest strengths – our world beating higher education system. Universities also see the opportunity, indeed the imperative, of developing technologies with industrial partners as government funding dwindles.
“It is our role to develop increasingly sophisticated partnerships so we can work with companies to secure internships for our second year students, develop research contracts and work to mutually develop our activities overseas with big companies,” said Professor Richard Williams OBE, pro-vice chancellor and head of the college of engineering and physical sciences.
“We are a charitable business, albeit an educational one, with a turnover of £540m and 6000 employees; we have the same concerns to many businesses in terms of strategy, funding, IP and cyber attack”
The overseas element of Birmingham’s research is particularly focused on the rail sector through their Centre for Railway Research and Education. With 70% of people projected to live in cities by 2050 demand for new transport systems is being driven by rapid urbanisation in the developing world.
“There are forty five metro systems being built in China and we are involved in several The University of Birmingham has strong experience in taking experimental technologies to market in partnership with some of the UK’s biggest companies. The university has a long standing strategic relationship with Rolls-Royce due to the strength of its School of Metallurgy and Materials.
of those. Demand for metro and overland rail is very substantial and offers incredible manufacturing opportunities for research into signalling, sensors, materials and for construction projects which have been a major growth area for us,” says Prof Williams.
More and more companies are separating their work into areas where they want to maintain commercial secrets and other, more fundamental areas, where they want to collaborate with universities and other businesses.
Birmingham has particularly found this to be the case at the Manufacturing Technology Centre – part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. This centre, where Birmingham is one of the academic partners, now works with 48 companies to develop new manufacturing techniques and processes.
Williams feels that industry has not generally been good at recognising that universities are not public bodies. “We are a charitable business, albeit an educational one, with a turnover of £540m and 6000 employees; we have similar concerns to many businesses in terms of strategy, funding, IP and cyber attack,” he says.
“Our strategy is to grow our relationships with industry. That means growing our relationships in automotive, aerospace and cyber security sectors among other industry sectors.”
Unblocking the pipeline
Brian Cox, celebrity physicist and contributor to the ATLAS experiment for CERN, recently stated at the announcement of the first Queen Elizabeth Engineering Prizes that by 2020 the UK economy will need one million more scientists and engineers to remain competitive.
Undoubtedly this shortfall is helping universities like Birmingham attract companies to partner with, particularly in the sectors of UK manufacturing that are performing well in the recession.
“What’s going on with manufacturing in the West Midlands is truly astonishing and there is a demand for talent that we couldn’t possibly satisfy. The job market is buoyant due to a shortage of skills. In our engineering schools ninety six per cent of graduates have a very well paid job within six months of completing their course – so companies are coming to work with us to seize talent as it emerges from the university.”
Although there has been criticism in the media that universities should be doing more commercially focused projects and less research for its own sake, Williams vehemently defends Birmingham’s academic freedom.
“It is true that someone doing theoretical physics finds themselves far away from direct application,” he comments. “But if you look at the history of innovation you will understand that it is not entirely appropriate for all academics to be commercially minded. That is not their role. Innovation doesn’t work like that.”
The evidence is in Williams’ favour. Some of the most useful discoveries, ranging from penicillin to Teflon have been invented through scientists pushing at the boundaries of their knowledge rather than searching to solve any particular problem.
But Williams knows that, by the same token, these same scientific discoveries are only recognised and used in our daily lives thanks to communication and collaboration with industry.
“My role is to connect the intellectual assets produced by scientists and engineers at the university to the needs of society,” he explains. “We will continue to be increasingly smart in how we do that.”
When Birmingham partners with businesses there is a negotiation concerning who owns the intellectual property rights to any discoveries. Partnerships generally abide by national IP standards. However, if a company fully funds all the research costs, it can normally keep the IP generated by the project.
“We are not like a US university; our role is to get knowledge transferred. We haven’t got resources to develop IP ourselves so we want to work with partners who will invest in it and get it developed,” Williams sums up