The key to successful public-private partnerships

Ian Bamford, commercial director of the EPSRC Centre for Industrial Sustainability at Cambridge University, oversees the management of all commercial and back office activities and the recruitment of new public and private sector partners. Your Ready Business recently spoke to Ian who explains why collaboration between the public, private and academic sectors is now more important than ever.

For the private sector, businesses are able to benefit from the methodical approach and the attention to detail of academic institutions and collaboration can play an important part in creating innovative products and services.

Vice-versa, the public sector and research bodies have benefited immensely from the commercial viewpoint of business; the need to focus on targets and time-keeping, as well as gaining a better understanding of the ‘real world’ context of projects.

Today, the act of bodies working together for the greater good has special resonance, because of the pervading tight fiscal landscape which has stripped budgets and required organisations to find efficiencies across the board.

Each party can benefit from the particular expertise and experience of the others. From a research point of view, which is my area of work, this means developing better studies that lead to products that work perfectly and have high adoption rates.

But in principle the same can be said for public-private deals where responsibility, expertise and funding is shared to create the best and most viable programmes of work, particularly when it comes to large scale infrastructure projects.

To put it simply, you tend to arrive at a product or solution that is greater than the sum of its parts.

For the best results, be prepared

There are of course intricacies that must be ironed out as part of any partnership arrangement, so preparation is key.

I’m often involved in projects that have four or more contributing parties, so it’s important to set out a clear vision from the beginning. Every group must understand what it brings to the table, what inputs will be taking place and where they will come from.

It’s as important to reduce overlap in the project and have clear roles and responsibilities, so organisations must present a clear roadmap, including who is committing how much time and when stages will be completed. The need for this is particularly acute if organisations have overlapping capabilities.

This roadmap should be reviewed regularly. I generally work on projects with a timescale of between 12 and 24 months and I generally want to see a review every three months to make sure there is no slippage and that the direction is still correct.

Finding the right partners

Finding the best possible partners is not as easy as it sounds, even for a leading academic institution like Cambridge University. We have background conversations with dozens of companies and during those conversations topics crop up that we agree could benefit from additional research. Projects tend to develop informally from that point.

In the private sector it can be even harder because many businesses have a very small database of academic institutions to choose from. Information on active centres of research isn’t widely available so they pick from a small pool.

That leads to complications and occasionally projects don’t make it off the ground because researchers have emphasised qualifications to win funding but can’t live up to their pitch.

My tip is to take a look at the Knowledge Transfer Network, which has a good brokerage service, or Innovate UK. These will help you find an appropriate partner to work with; the alternative being a broad and time-consuming search.

I expect collaborations involving multiple inter-sector groups will increase in future and that this will provide better outcomes for business and society as a whole. But organisations need to adopt a position of openness and teamwork to deliver the best results for ev