Working as an academic with the commercial sector

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It’s a little-known fact that you don’t need to leave academia to work with the commercial sector. Universities these days are busy developing their outward-facing roles, and many have created business hubs that allow academics and corporate sectors to work together. This article considers a few of the ways in which academics might make use of the opportunities to test the waters of the commercial sector while remaining in academia themselves.

Consider what you might offer

Increasingly, some entrepreneurial-minded academics have considered the impact agenda now driving university practice and have sought to apply their expertise. Academics may develop goods and material products, but increasingly it is their expertise that is of interest to companies, in the forms of professional services, consultation, and training courses (e.g. linguists offering training in maximizing good communication in cross-cultural business contexts).

Facilitate contacts

Universities can often facilitate contacts between academics and commerce not only through traditional means (seminars, conferences, conventions), but also via new initiatives, such as ‘sandbox’ events, ‘jams’, quick-fire events (‘pecehchuchas’), and even by dedicating facilities to be informal ‘hackspaces’. Contact your Research office or your Outreach and Development office to see what might be available. Universities have many resources at their disposal, from space to equipment as well as expertise and mentoring. Many universities have established their own ‘enterprise hubs’, or in some cases, ‘enterprise zones’, to enhance the opportunities to build up longer-term relationships with business and commerce.

Develop KTPs

The buzzword of the moment is KTP, or Knowledge Transfer Partnership. Universities everywhere are required by their funding bodies (government and research) to demonstrate increasing integration with and impact on their community, region, and nation at large. The UK government currently offers funding opportunities through Innovate UK (sponsored by Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) to develop academic KTPs in specific industry sectors. These include: emerging technologies (e.g. graphene, imaging technology, energy harvesting, quantum technologies, cyber security, data); health and life sciences (e.g. food quality, biosciences, precision medicine); infrastructure (energy systems; transport, infrastructure); and manufacturing and materials (digital manufacturing). There is also an open programme to support any sector.

Start a business
You might also consider starting your own business, although you will have to tread carefully with regard to your contractual responsibilities to the university. Most universities will offer legal advice on this and will regard your work as their intellectual property if it is undertaken using university resources or on their time. Another route to working with the private sector is to offer your services as a consultant; some universities allow academics to take a certain number of days per year to work externally as consultants. Examples of consultancy work in the academic sector include advising on government policy, editing, report writing, and area analysis.

Get the groundwork right

If you are thinking of pursuing this path you must first establish what your university’s external work policy is. In most cases, you will need to get permission from your university (line manager and/or HR) in order to ensure that you can still fulfil your primary contractual duties and that the risk of reputational damage is minimised. You should also ensure that you are fully up to speed with your university’s policies on intellectual property agreements, copyright, and ethics, in order to protect yourself, but also to foster good practice and build trust between all partners.

You will also need to make sure that you are covered for liability in any external work: check that your university provides public liability insurance (for working with the general public), and also Professional Indemnity Insurance (to protect you and the university from legal damages arising from a claim for negligence or inaccurate information. Note that in most cases consultancy work will mean assigning the IP rights to the client, whereas universities may retain IP rights in the case of KTPs or large-scale partnerships.

Entrepreneurship is becoming a valuable part of university life, so now is the time to explore what options might be available to you – while remaining an academic and making use of the wonderful aggregation of facilities, expertise, technology and reputational benefits that universities offer. Universities want to facilitate commercial enterprises or partnerships not just in order to develop new income streams, but to also build soft capital in communities and with employers, as well as to generate valuable examples of impact case studies in the REF. And it’s not just a one-way street: by exploring this route you can broaden your horizons, build your reputation and skills, augment your income, and of course, make your dreams come true.


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