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East of England universities awarded £4.7m in challenge to improve links with business

PUBLISHED: 12:04 12 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:03 12 October 2017

Universities minister Jo Johnson, left, visiting Norwich Research Park earlier this year. He is pictured with Prof George Lomonossoff, from the John Innes Centre, and Dr Sharon Mithoe. Picture: SOPHIE WYLLIE.

Universities minister Jo Johnson, left, visiting Norwich Research Park earlier this year. He is pictured with Prof George Lomonossoff, from the John Innes Centre, and Dr Sharon Mithoe. Picture: SOPHIE WYLLIE.

SOPHIE WYLLIE

Universities in East Anglia have been handed a multi-million pound funding boost to improve their links with business.

Universities minister Jo Johnson has announced today a £4.7m investment to improve productivity in the east by encouraging collaboration between universities and businesses - particularly in strength areas including agri-tech, artificial intelligence and digital creative industries.

The money will go to the Eastern Academic Research Consortium (Eastern ARC) – which comprises the University of East Anglia, University of Essex and University of Kent – to establish a network to support business innovation in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent.

The network, called Enabling Innovation: Research to Application (EIRA) will build collaborations with businesses. Those partnerships will collectively have access to new funding, training, networking opportunities and collaborative working space.

Mr Johnson said: “Universities have a vital role to play in their local communities and in the national economy. Given the record levels of public investment in R&D, it is essential that universities engage with businesses and communities to make the most of their knowledge and research.

“There are great examples of this across the country but the system needs to find a new gear. University income from business engagement is growing more slowly than the economy as a whole, with British universities producing fewer spin-outs and less licensing income per pound of research resource than US counterparts. As a greater proportion of R&D takes place in universities in the UK than in other countries, it’s especially important that we get this right.”

Mr Johnson also revealed plans for a new body to assess the performance of university-business collaboration and knowledge exchange.

Vanessa Cuthill, director of the research and enterprise office at the University of Essex, which is leading the project on behalf of Eastern ARC, said: “We have world-leading research in the east of England across our higher education sector, but the region scores lower than the UK average for productivity and growth.

“This network aims to change this by harnessing the resources of regional universities and connecting businesses with our expertise, particularly across the areas that Eastern ARC specialises in – artificial intelligence, agri-tech, and digital creative.”

The network also includes higher education partners Norwich University of the Arts, the University of Suffolk, Writtle University College and Harlow College. Initial partners include BT, Tech East and Agri-Tech East, South East LEP, New Anglia LEP and Digital Catapult.

Prof Fiona Lettice, UEA pro-vice-chancellor, said: “Universities play a key role in boosting creativity, productivity and economic growth through collaboration and innovation so that research can be effectively used and commercialised.

“Sharing of knowledge and good practice is vital to continue this economic advancement and we are delighted to receive this support from HEFCE to forge further working relationships and promote the benefits of collaboration across the east of England.”

Sarah Steed, Norwich University of the Arts business director, welcomed the minister’s announcement. She said: “We’re proud of NUA’s track record in supporting businesses in East Anglia and beyond, through our Ideas Factory, our work with the Digital Creative Industries group of New Anglia LEP, and the close relationships between many of our academic staff and professionals in the creative industries. We’re delighted that today’s funding announcement will help support and develop that work in future.”

Professor Anthony Forster, University of Essex vice-chancellor said: “We’re determined to put our research into action to help drive growth in the region and support innovation in businesses.

“This new funding will allow us to transform the relationship between universities and the private sector to deliver on the huge potential of the eastern region by sharing knowledge and expertise.”

The funding has been allocated from the £20m first round of Connecting Capability Fund, run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which supports universities in working together and with external partners to commercialise research, which forms part of the government’s Industrial Strategy.

The East of England project was one of just four to be awarded funding in the first round.

Stef Thorne, the University of Suffolk’s head of research and enterprise services, said: “We are delighted to be working with the lead partners on this project and the collaborative opportunities this will bring to deliver the Industrial Strategy, connect our collective abilities and resources as universities to engage in knowledge exchange, respond to the regional scale-up and productivity challenges and strengthen the region.

“The University of Suffolk is, through the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre, and our emergent research strengths, well placed to deliver this agenda as an anchor institution in Suffolk.”

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