Why do industries choose to work with UK Universities? In the Praxis Auril blog series, we’re looking at R&D-centric multinationals with research programs in the UK, and we’re asking them what works in UK research collaborations and what doesn’t. Damian Kelly, Head of Global Research & Development at Croda talks about how the UK-based business has evolved its UK collaborations.
Since 1925, Croda has been responsible for the production of high performance ingredients and technologies. The business to business multinational is active in markets such as agrochemicals, lubricants, coatings and personal care. They actively work with universities and recently held a knowledge exchange day with 35 UK universities
About Dr Damian Kelly, Head of Global Research & Development
Dr Damian Kelly has worked at Croda since 2001 and has held several positions across different markets, divisions and functions. He was appointed to his current role in 2016. Besides his role as Head of Global Development and Research, he is the technical lead for Croda’s Technology Investment Group, which is responsible for the acquisition and licensing of new technologies that match the needs of all Croda’s end markets. Outside of Croda, Dr Kelly is also a member of the Centre for Process Innovation’s Technology Advisory Committee. He is furthermore a member of the Innovation Strategy Board for the Knowledge Transfer Network.
Why do you choose to work with UK university partners?
We’ve been actively involved in open innovation for about eight years. I’ve been with Croda seventeen years, and the Croda I joined from university did most of its R&D in-house. We tackled problems internally. We’re much more collaborative now, and more willing to engage with clever people who don’t work for Croda to help us solve our problems. We’ve put a lot of effort into developing our open innovation program. From 2010 with only 1 or 2 projects, we have now completed over 100 research collaborations. We’re a business to business company, and our job is to help solve our customers problems. If we can do that internally fine; if we need support we identify academics we feel can help support us. For many of our customers problems, we’ll need an array of different academics across disciplines. Not just in chemistry, but in engineering and biology.
We’re a global company, so we have a global presence. We have 35 R&D locations across the globe and 29 manufacturing sites, including in Japan, Brazil, the Netherlands and China. But the history and the headquarters of Croda is in the UK and this is where most of our collaborations have been up until now, led by our technology people. We are staring to globalize open innovation with new collaborations in Singapore, the Netherlands, France, North America and Brazil. It gives us an opportunity to network abroad and gather different perspectives. We don’t intentionally go for local relationships, but sometimes it’s easier for the UK-based R&D teams to work with local universities. It can be difficult, for instance for our US colleagues to work with a Chinese university, just because of distance and language. Part of my role is to facilitate collaboration, and in the end we just want our R&D teams to work with the best partners.
In terms of collaboration, we have a presence at the University of Liverpool, where we’re part of the new Materials Innovation Factory. We were attracted to the new facility, the academics at Liverpool, the equipment, and the can-do culture at Liverpool. They help us with our customer’s challenges, and they’re keen to get on with stuff and be creative. There is flexibility on both sides to solve issues that might come up. Besides the Materials Innovation Factory, we’re working with five or six other departments at Liverpool, with an array of different projects, from new surfactants to new anti-microbials. The depth of our collaboration with Liverpool just reflects the fact that Liverpool is interested in a lot of the things that Croda is interested in.
This is true of several other UK universities. York University is strong in green chemistry, sustainable chemistry and bio-based technology—all that ticks our boxes. We’ve done a lot good work with Nottingham, Manchester and with Sheffield for similar reasons. We have lots of active projects across UK universities today.
Overall, we don’t dictate to R&D who they should work with. They should work with whoever they think will help them solve their technical problems. We don’t take a selective partnership approach. We identify who we think is the best partner by looking at who is publishing, who is active, who is at conferences talking about technologies of interest. We have a selection of single projects at places like Strathclyde, Newcastle and Edinburgh, but in other places we have multiple touchpoints.
What kinds of university collaborations does Croda focus on?
We have a huge array of engagement types. We sponsor a lot of PhDs, but PhD work is not necessarily our preference. We support undergraduate and master’s students, and summer placements for PhDs and post docs. It just depends on the project. Do we need a solution quickly? How big is the problem? We love being creative when it comes to relationships. What we’re looking at is what needs to be done, and how to do it in a reasonable time frame.
We do a lot of education events. We go in and present to undergraduates: who is Croda. What is a career in the chemical industry like? We give career advice, interview advice and pose academic challenges. We have an active graduate development program where we hire graduates every year. There’s a recognition of our programs and what we can offer graduates when then they come to us.
We offer secondments where academics or post-docs can come to work at Croda for a period of time. We are also happy to do it vice versa, where Croda staff could work at a university. During these secondments, we build relationships which make us better at working together to solve the problems.
What are the cultural differences in engaging with UK university KE offices vs other countries?
Other than language, there aren’t too many differences. Most developed countries have universities working on similar things. We work a lot with UK universities because we have a strong R&D presence in the UK.
I suspect some Universities do prefer to work with companies they see as national. We’re seen as a British company. It might be easier for universities to work with local national companies. When we’re looking to collaborate, we’re also looking at whether funding is available to support collaboration. The UK government recognizes Croda as British so they’re more likely to support a British company and British university working together.
Also we have a history of when we’ve solved problems together at UK universities, we’re then able to scale up and manufacture in the UK. We’ve built manufacturing sites in the UK directly on the back of successful university projects. That’s created jobs and wealth for the UK, and it means the government is more inclined to support these kinds of national collaborations in the future.
Government funding to support collaboration is important in every country we operate. We have a presence in Holland, and when our business in Gouda wants to do open innovation, they can generally get Dutch government funding. In France, we work locally, because we’re quite successful in getting French funding. The same in Singapore, Germany and Japan. We’re successful in obtaining funding when we can present a strong case and highlight the local economic benefits of our projects. Funding helps to re-risk projects and allows us to do more than we could if Croda had to pay for it all.
So no, there is not really anything absolutely unique in terms of engaging with UK universities. I think we’re lucky that some of the best universities in the world are based here, which helps to attract the best and brightest minds to the UK.
What are the challenging and the rewarding elements of UK collaborations?
For Croda, our challenge is in making ourselves attractive to engage with. We have to continually engage universities on our needs, what we’re looking for, and our markets and see if that resonates with them.
When it comes to collaboration, there is also the IP conversation. University flexibility is always an advantage. Not to say that industry must own it all, but flexibility makes a difference. Some universities are quite inflexible, and that doesn’t help.
We also look at the time frames in which they can be reactive. If we have a problem to solve today, then we often require solutions in the near term. Putting in place research agreements and appointing a student can sometimes take time. Responsiveness to our industry problems is always a challenge.
Maintaining focus on industry challenges is also critical. It’s easy in research to get distracted and go off on a tangent. I understand the desire to follow results, but as an industry we have to remain focused on the problems we want to solve. Most academics are good at this.
Do you have best practice or changes you would recommend to UK KE practitioners?
I’d like to see more UK university knowledge exchange engage with UK industry. You see British technology sometimes going abroad. A lot of research is funded by UK taxpayers, and it would be nice to see UK academia and UK-based industry working more closely together to support the UK.
Our relationships are best with people who really want to engage with industry and get to know Croda. If I had to make a recommendation, I’d say develop relationships with industry, get to know the companies well. I’ve been to universities and gotten to know people, and they’ve come to Croda and got to know our staff. They’ve built a relationship with companies that they think could support the university as opposed to waiting to be approached. We can just pick up the phone and talk informally. That comes from just knowing people and who to talk to. Academics tend to engage more with industry than knowledge exchange professionals, and I would like to see more knowledge exchange professionals engaging with Croda.
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