Angela KukulaIn March this year, the BIA submitted our response to Dame Anne Dowling’s review of business-university collaborations, highlighting the increasingly collaborative nature of the UK’s life sciences sector. In today’s blog, Dr Angela Kukula, Director of Enterprise at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, discusses the importance of the relationship between academia and industry to the success of the Institute.

How academic institutions can work more effectively with industry is an age old question that has been the subject of many reviews without finding a perfect solution. Another of these reviews, the Government-commissioned Dowling Review, launched in January this year with the aim of ‘helping researchers to understand better the interests of industry’.

It’s of course always worthwhile to try to understand how we could do things better – but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact there are many researchers who already have a good understanding of how to work with industry and many organisations already forging successful links. Here, at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, our success depends on close industry collaboration. Our mission is to make the discoveries that defeat cancer, and in many cases working with industry is the fastest and most efficient way to take our discoveries to patients. Working with companies gives our research projects greater access to resources, research tools and complementary skills and gives industry access to our world leading research.

Which of course, is the main reason industry wants to partner with us – to share the benefits of our research excellence. Businesses want to work with the best academic minds in their fields. This is a particular strength for the ICR – we came first overall in the Times Higher Education league table for university research quality compiled from the Research Excellence Framework. We were the leading higher education institution in the UK for the impact for our research on society and topped the table for biological sciences. We are also the world’s most successful academic organisation at cancer drug discovery – discovering 17 preclinical drug candidates since 2005, seven of which have progressed into clinical trials.

But research excellence is not the whole story, so we have had to adapt over the years to become more effective at working with industry. We have succeeded in this, for example over the last three years we have increased our number of industry contracts by 50% and increased their value by 200%. Though our main driver in these collaborations is to ensure our research reaches cancer patients, the ICR also continues to be the most successful higher education intuition in the country at earning invention income from its research – money which we use to fund more of our leading-edge research.

Our success is a result of our flexible and pragmatic approach to working with industry. We believe that all parties involved in collaborative research must communicate frequently in order build mutual respect, understanding and trust, and both parties must have the flexibility to accommodate the unexpected, find solutions to the inevitable problems that will occur and compromise where necessary. Movement of people between the academic and commercial sectors can also play an important role in promoting cultural understanding. Many of our academics have spent time working in industry.

There are also external factors that are essential to support these relationships. Funding from the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) has been a critical factor for our success. This has enabled us to build a team of professional business development managers who are able to cement the interactions with industry required to take our research into commercial development. In the 2013 Witty Review, Sir Andrew Witty recommended that the Government should increase HEIF funding to £250 million per year. We strongly support this recommendation and also believe that funding streams, such as HEIF, need to be flexible enough to support a range of activities.

UK science funding is also an important external factor. The gradual decline in the UK’s science spending risks slowing scientific progress, and the widening gap between UK investment in research and development and that of our competitor countries is a cause for concern.

Over the years many different initiatives have been set up to try to encourage collaborative working between industry and academia, with varying degrees of success. I can think of at least 17 different funding schemes all trying to address this same issue. These schemes often change before we know they are effective, and a changing landscape with many different initiatives can be hard for academic institutions and businesses alike to navigate. What we really need is secure long term government funding schemes to support research and development in the UK.

With a new Government in parliament, with new decisions to make on research spending and the allocation to HEIF, and the Dowling review collecting evidence, this is an interesting time for academia-industry collaborations. But whatever the future holds, we will continue to work closely with our industry partners – because cancer patients are depending on it.