The UK has a long history of university-industry research collaborations, with about two thirds of R&D funding coming from the private sector.

The recent 2018 State of the Relationship Report from the National Centre for Universities and Business noted that the UK now ranks 6th in the world for industry-university collaboration.  And with the UK Government has committed itself to growing R&D from 1.7% of GDP in 2015 to 2.4% by 2027, that’s great news.

But the report notes that 75% of private sector UK R&D is carried out by only 400 businesses.   Of the businesses that work with universities, the 2015 Dowling Review notes that a significant portion of these were headquartered outside of the UK.  If the UK is going to continue the trend of increased foreign investment in business collaborations with UK universities, what can universities do to increase their appeal to multinationals?

We’re asking a series of KE experts on the industry side, what makes their company choose to work with UK Universities, and how UK KE practitioners could up their game.  These R&D-centric multinationals have a wealth of collaboration choices, and naturally, a finite amount to invest.  How can the UK gain an edge?  We talked to Malcolm Skingle, Director, Academic Liaison to find out how GSK benefits from collaborating with UK universities.

About Dr. Malcolm Skingle, Director of Academic Liaison for GlaxoSmithKline

skingleMalcolm Skingle has been Director of Academic Liaison for GlaxoSmithKline for the past 23 years.  He is the author of more than 60 articles, including many on the interface between industry and academic research.  He sits on many external bodies, including UK university department advisory groups, industrial boards and government advisory councils.  He was awarded a CBE in 2009 for his contribution to the pharmaceutical industry.

GSK was cited in 152 research excellence framework (REF) impact case studies spread across 30 UK universities in the last REF exercise; by far the most of the 377 companies named by universities as project partners in the 2015 Dowling Review.

Malcolm is also a long-time supporter of PraxisAuril, an organisation that he sees as being key in connecting the UK research base with academia. He has served as a Board member, speaker and blog author, amongst others.

GSK clearly works in many research collaborations with UK universities.  Is that by design?  Why?

Primarily it’s because the UK Science base is strong and has been strong for a long time.  Successive governments have realised that we need a good science base, if we are going to innovate and prosper.  The current government is supporting a joined-up approach with their industrial strategies, where they’re working to support research to underpin several sectors.  The Pharma sector is strong and has been working with academia a long time.  Pharma R&D spend has consistently been higher than other sectors over a number of years.

GSK are currently working with universities in 29 countries, the majority in the UK and the US. That’s in part because GSK have a strong research presence in those two countries.

Governments are waking up to the fact that they need to put money into certain areas of science to stimulate collaborations and subsequent inward investment.  For example, some countries have tax credits for companies that are investing in university research in their local universities.  Forward-looking companies are keen to co-fund research and to leverage science which helps to underpin their internal research efforts.

One of the key attractions to working with UK universities is their pragmatism and their approach to collaborations.  Companies can collaborate with whoever they want, anywhere in the world, but the attitude and culture in the UK means that we can always have a sensible conversation at both a junior and senior level.  These discussions help broker collaborative arrangements (or not) in a timely fashion.

Collaborations involve an intellectual contribution from both parties, and they add value to both the academic and industry science base; our collaborations do not just pay someone to undertake contract research. This is probably better placed in a clinical research organisation or research service provider. We’re looking for complimentary expertise to what is in-house.  I’ve worked on both sides (of the academic-industry interface), and I see collaboration as a benefit to science in general.  I’ve seen how much value collaboration brings.

What do you think is different culturally about engaging with UK universities vs other countries?

It depends on the people, of course.  But sometimes this willingness to be pragmatic is patchy in other countries.  Some countries are very strategic and focus on hot areas of science.  Most funding agencies nowadays are keen on Open Science, where the outputs of their funded science are shared openly with the scientific community.  Early dissemination of research findings will allow other labs to corroborate and expand the research field.  GSK are very supportive of open science initiatives (for example Open Targets).

The 1980 BayhDole Act (a U.S. law in which inventions made with federal funding can be assigned to a university, business or non-profit, rather than to government ownership) has influenced U.S. culture and behaviour over several decades. The Act’s provision for US universities to retain title to inventions discovered in their facilities raises the possibility of them owning intellectual property generated using what is substantially company funding.   And since the Act prohibits the university from assigning ownership of intellectual property to a sponsor, unless the degree of federal funds applied to the research is truly zero, the Act can work against deal-making in cases where ownership of IP is vital to the sponsor.  This has driven a greater focus on licensing technology in the US universities, whereas in the UK there is a greater emphasis on collaborative research.  My company gets greater value from their collaboration portfolio than from any single technology license, and accordingly only a very small percentage of our research budgets is used to fund licensing arrangements.

We often choose to work with UK Universities for their pragmatism and their ability to broker an agreement in a timely fashion.  I’m a fan of the Lambert agreements.  Lamberts work.  They help you have an upfront conversation about the important things in a contract, and if you can’t agree, you shake hands and you walk away.  We use Lamberts 1 and 4 agreements the most.  This pragmatism and speed-to-executed-contract means that we have a disproportionate amount of collaborations in UK.

What is the most challenging cultural or legislative element you find in your UK academic collaborations?

Well, the challenges are almost always about people.  For example, it may be that you encounter a junior-level staff member who doesn’t get the big picture.  They don’t want to make a wrong decision, so they find it difficult to broker an arrangement in a timely fashion, primarily because they don’t have authority and autonomy to negotiate a position.  Having said that, PraxisAuril training courses over a number have years have done much to increase the quality of negotiators in universities.

In the UK specifically, economic costing has also been challenging over the years.  The non-financial in-kind contributions we make to a collaboration often far outstrip the financial contributions, and sometimes universities don’t recognise that.  Often the scientists will, but the administration doesn’t see it that way.  That’s why you need people who work in the KE/KT offices who understand the science, and are close to their academic scientists, and realise the value of what the industry is bringing to the party, other than money. 

What is the most rewarding element of working in UK academic collaborations?

It’s really whenever there is joint innovation and/or joint publication arising from a collaboration.  We want to publish, because we want other people thinking about our scientific challenges, and through their external publications, we can tap into that.  One of the other rewarding things about academic collaborations in general, is that I never have to sell GSK as a potential collaborator for the second time.  The first time I might have to convince an academic to work with us.  But once they have collaborated with us, they see the value in it.  And it’s rewarding when there is overt recognition by the academic partner for the quality of the science we’re doing in the industrial setting.    

Do you have best practice or changes you’d recommend to UK universities?

Key to all of this is good and constant communication.  I do an end-of-grant questionnaire to assess the quality of a collaboration. Then I can tell at a glance, how well the collaboration has gone.  How many times did you meet this year? How many joint publications?  What kinds of materials and equipment did you jointly use?  And most importantly:  would you work with this person again?  We score out of 10.  If it’s a seven, we consider it to have gone well.  If something’s gone wrong, we look into it and rectify our processes.  If it gone really well, we write it up and use it as a success story.

Also, you should not be afraid to realign research programs when things are not going well.  When things go badly, it’s either because there have been personnel changes (so you realign), the research has gone down a blind alley, or possibly because you’re spending weeks negotiating on points that don’t matter.

It is important to consider IP at the outset of any negotiation but more often than not, we don’t need to own IP; we just need freedom to operate.  We often use a split Lambert agreement (4A), where we seek to own any arising IP associated with our asset.  But the university may own any non-asset related IP.   We really cut down negotiation time by using these Lambert agreements.

The other best practice I’d recommend is people exchange: literally going to each other’s sites.  We have these exchanges at every level.  We have “sandwich” under-grad students who are in their penultimate year of university, who spend some time in industry.  We have more than 300 on site at the moment. They allow us to build a relationship with their academic supervisor.  It allows the student the opportunity to determine whether bench science is for them, and the industrial scientist can assess the quality of the sandwich student as a potential recruit.  It’s essentially a one year “interview”.

We also have more than 280 CASE students who are spending anything from three months to three years in the industry.  At the more senior level, we have visiting chairs, where the universities let our scientists spend time embedded in the university, and in return we influence the curriculum, offer advice on research programmes and get departments working together who might not have worked together before.  We also have the opportunity to scan technology and hook people up with our in-house scientists in different areasWe also have visiting fellows who come to work in our laboratories for a time.

What works best for us are the large-scale programs where we gain critical mass.  One of our biggest successes has been the GSK global Immunology Network, where we have scientists (on sabbatical) embedded in GSK.  They own the non-GSK assets related IP they generate whilst at GSK, and they get to kick the tyres of our science and see the quality of our in-house research. We have the best of both worlds.

We have several large projects with universities where multiple research groups can be collaborating on a general area of science at the same time.  The critical mass of scientists working on these programmes results in cross fertilisation and the generation of many novel ideas.

In the field of signalling, the Dundee Kinase Consortium is the longest-running collaboration, ever, at 20 years.  GSK also has a long-term inflammation research alliance at University of Manchester.  We have a varsity program at University Cambridge with a portfolio of projects, and we work with UCL, Imperial and others in our experimental medical initiative (EMINENT).

The principles I recommend remain constant:  Diversity, consistency, transparency and good science.  It’s the same as in sport.  You play fair. You do what is right as a collaborator and people want to work with you.

How do you see PraxisAuril playing a role in connecting universities and companies?

PraxisAuril have an excellent network into all of the UK universities and indeed, further afield.  As a member, I have been able to use their communication channels to publicise potential areas of interest to GSK and, also, to advertise when I’m head hunting for contract professionals for my team.  On occasion I have also interacted with the PraxisAuril policy team in order to convey a consistent message to government on matters relating to academic liaison and funding mechanisms.

I would recommend that those in companies who work with universities consider joining the organization.  Not only do you have access to an excellent ready-made network, you also get preferential rates for their conferences and training courses.  The training is undertaken by practitioners, with a wealth of experience at the coalface.  I have been particularly impressed by the “can do” culture of the Praxis network, who help make things happen at the academic-industry interface.

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