Taking AIM at the relationship between academia and industry

As Edinburgh emerges as the UK’s largest technology hub outside London, the university’s expert knowledge and world-class research is a rich resource for business

by Barry McDonald

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With the University of Edinburgh now ranked 21 in the world, its renowned research, firmly based on real-world business challenges, is an accessible resource for industry to harness. Traditionally, however, industry has found academia a foreign land, one which can be difficult to engage with, given their divergent motivations.

In order to overcome this barrier, the University of Edinburgh has become the UK’s first academic institution to introduce the AIMday concept, an occasional event that brings together academia and industry. Initiated in Sweden in 2008, the Academic Industry Meeting (AIM) day events help academics and industry better engage and realise the potential of collaboration.

Ian Sharp is Commercial Relations Manager, Edinburgh Research & Innovation. He points to the historically difficult relationship between the two and believes AIMdays offer a viable solution. “Traditionally, academics and industry meet at various events and tell each other what they’re good at and what they do – and nothing really happens,” he says.

Iain Sharp P9
Pictured: Ian Sharp

“The AIMdays are more proactive and allow the company to come in and express issues which then allows the academic to update the company on how they can get around those, or capitalise on various opportunities through the exploitation of their knowledge. It’s a meeting which turns into a workshop, which turns into a trigger for potential collaboration between both parties.”

 The concept of an AIMday is simple: companies taking part are invited to submit questions beforehand that relate to the chosen theme. The questions are then circulated around the university and academics can select questions they feel they can offer assistance with.

The format of the event itself is a simple yet effective one: one question, one hour, one group of experts. It’s a format which has proved successful in finding useful contacts, collaborations, and new paths to solutions to organisations’ questions. Sharp’s ERI colleague, Vicky Thomas, highlights the benefits of this collaborative approach to problem solving.

“The academics have identified questions that they want to get involved in,” she says.

“Straight from the outset you have relevant academics who are engaged with talking with industry. It cuts out a lot of the time that would be involved in the process if you were going through a different route.”

“Both academics and industry benefit from the process,” adds Ian Sharp. “By its very nature, both parties have to see the benefits for the process to succeed. That’s why it’s been so successful: if it was a one-sided process it wouldn’t work.”

Originally started in the College of Science and Engineering, the University of Edinburgh has staged five AIMdays to date, the latest of which has seen it expand across the university to the Business School on the topic of Risk and Resilience. Previous topics have included Modelling and Simulation, Materials and Life Sciences. A further AIMday targeting the finance sector is planned for the spring.

 “AIMday runs to a very strict time format,” adds Vicky Thomas. “It starts with five minutes of introductions, then the company has 10 minutes to present its problem or challenge to the academic. There follows 45 minutes of discussion around exactly what the topic is. It’s a tightly-controlled and intense hour and it one that produces good output.”

The benefits of this innovative approach to collaboration between industry and academia are clear to see, with more than 150 academics and company representatives present, ranging from start-ups and SMEs to large multinationals having registered for the events. Companies benefit from the latest cutting-edge technologies and find the correct, engaged academics to partner with to meet their challenge.

The process has already led to myriad outcomes, including studentships, research projects and consultancy programmes.

Networking between academia and industry is another vital outcome, forging key links to increase the impact of research and ensuring that academic research is firmly focused on the areas that are of interest to industry today and in the future.

“There have been various projects to have emerged from the AIMdays,” says Ian Sharp. “Companies have looked at issues that have affected their business and some of them are business issues, while some are technical. They’ve been able to understand what could be possible, whether that be developing new products or saving money. It’s a raft of different things.

“We’ve had companies trying to apply robotics to a product or trying to improve their carbon finance.”

Companies who participate in AIMdays gain a wider perspective on the challenges they face, argues Vicky Thomas. “Some have asked us relatively technical questions and they’ve been exposed to scientists who can answer those questions but they’ve also had input from social scientists which give them a different view.

“It exposes the company to a range of different points of view. It helps it to define what it is it is trying to get from its requirement. It might approach it from a different angle, one it hadn’t considered in the past.”

AIMdays are only the start of the process, says Sharp, who warns against expecting a ‘quick fix’. “The aim of the sessions is not necessarily to immediately solve the problem or opportunity the company presents; it’s to discuss the potential ways forward,” he points out. “The nature of the questions are such that they’re never going to get a answer. It’s part of the process for the company to explore potential solutions. At the end of the workshop there’s usually a set of actions.

“The workshop isn’t a solution, it’s a means to get a solution.”

What’s in it for me?

Whether you’re a microbusiness at start-up level, an established sme or a mammoth multinational, there are benefits to participating in an aimday.  You can meet academics who can solve issues within your industry and gain access to national and international networks of highly qualified scientists and discover new opportunities for product and service development through collaborations and commissioned research.

You can also meet doctoral candidates who may be your future employees. To start a conversation on how the University of Edinburgh can work with your business on a specific challenge or question, please
contact the Commercial Relations Team, Edinburgh Research & Innovation at crm@ed.ac.uk, or call
0131 650 9090.