In the UK’s recent spin-out review, one pivotal force in the university innovation space flew under the radar: consultancy.
Far from being a secondary actor, academic consultancy has become one of the most effective and efficient ways of generating impact from university research in a short space of time. It supports an extensive array of faculty, forges partnerships with numerous industry and governmental players, and generates a stable and substantial revenue stream.
Cambridge Enterprise’s consultancy activity brought in £10.7 million for the University of Cambridge in 2022/23, while consultancy has also proven itself a dependable asset at our peer institutions, including the University of Oxford, Imperial College London and University College London.
At Cambridge, consultancy makes a significant contribution to the impressive £23 billion annual economic impact generated by the university’s research and innovation output (which figure also includes the revenue from Cambridge spin-out companies and from knowledge and tech transfer and licensing). It does so via its unique ability to tap into the entire academic base. From the arts, humanities and social sciences to clinical medicine and technology, consultancy channels the intellectual might of Cambridge’s diverse disciplines into practical solutions and innovations.
Universities can offer both broad, shallow and deep, narrow perspectives to potential clients, depending on the project brief. For instance, individuals with specialised knowledge could serve on scientific advisory boards, helping to shape strategies for health or pharmaceutical companies. Alternatively, a collaborative effort by a small group might involve tailoring programmes specifically for government entities to tackle various challenges, such as designing an intervention programme for use in conflicted societies or providing guidance to a film crew during production.
More than half of our UK partnerships extend beyond the Golden Triangle of Cambridge, Oxford and London, bolstering regional competitiveness. And more than half of our industry partners are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), demonstrating that consultancy is crucial for businesses that lack the in-house innovation resources to tap into world-class insights.
Consultancy can be the snowball that starts an avalanche. Our recent engagement with Enhanc3D Genomics, a Cambridge precision medicine spin-out, has not only spawned more consultancies but also studentships and research agreements with the university. On the national stage, our involvement in the Clari-Fi project, developed as part of a consultancy with Unilever, is enhancing mobile screen accessibility, creating economic value for corporate clients while simultaneously removing visual barriers to mobile use in the general population. We also enable the transfer of Cambridge expertise to the world, ranging from support for global pharmaceutical firms to delivering crucial medical training to less developed parts of the world.
These projects, and others like them, are driving unprecedented growth in our sector. In the last decade, we have seen a fourfold increase in consultancy activity, reflecting a growing awareness among faculty. In the past five years, Cambridge has engaged and supported more than 500 different researchers in consultancy activity and over 1,000 external clients.
Typically, academics approach Cambridge Enterprise for consultancy support, given our team’s ability to oversee legal and financial risks for both the university and the academics involved, providing model agreements, university insurance coverage and an expert team for negotiations. We simplify the process by managing all financial and contractual administration, allowing academics to focus solely on their work. We also receive enquiries from external organisations seeking our assistance in identifying experts.
Demonstrating impact has become crucial in the UK, influenced by requirements in both the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and research funding applications. This shift in perspective has affected thought processes. While there will always be those dedicated to teaching and/or blue-sky research, the diverse benefits of tackling real-world challenges are recognised by an increasing number of academics, from individuals working in applied science disciplines to theoretical physicists and theologians.
But there is still more to do to raise awareness. Our role is to showcase – to senior management as much as to rank-and-file academics, many of whom are still unaware of this opportunity – that engagement in real-world applications is not only possible but also has extensive benefits for individuals, the university and, of course, the economy.
This awareness-raising mission extends beyond one institution: it should be pursued across the sector. The government must be helped to recognise and incorporate consultancy when examining the potential of university-industry relations.
At its core, consultancy is a cross-pollinator of innovation. It not only transcends disciplinary boundaries within universities but helps worlds collide, spreading and sharing ideas and information between academia, industry and other actors. This fusion is foundational to the kind of divergent thought, inspiration and cooperation that underpins innovation and will be vital to addressing global challenges effectively. We neglect this potential at our peril.
Amanda Zeffman is the head of consultancy and research tools at Cambridge Enterprise.