How university partnerships can unlock long-term business success

By Helen Lau

As seen in Business Insider.

Helen Lau is Associate Director for Knowledge Exchange at Coventry University and has more than 15 years of commercial experience, including developing the role that universities play in helping SMEs to develop and grow.

In this blog, Helen outlines why collaborative partnerships are important now more than ever for SMEs, whilst also showcasing the impact that Coventry University is already having for some areas of business.

As many as 900,000 small businesses in the UK are at risk of failing by spring 2021, according to the report “A major wave of UK business closures by April 2021? The scale of the problem and what can be done?”, which was published by The London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, and the Alliance for Full Employment earlier this year. When taking into account that around 99 per cent of all UK businesses are SMEs, this is a particularly alarming statistic.

The findings of the report underline why it is crucial that companies seek to diversify and expand, not only for short-term survival, but so they can capitalise on the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery for the long-term.

A fast-emerging avenue to helping SMEs exploring diversification is through Knowledge Exchange.

Knowledge Exchange enables businesses to enlist the support of university academics in helping them to meet their evolving needs whilst achieving effective results. There is minimal risk because the team of academics working on any given project are often part-funded by the government and other related third parties, so the business in question will not have to worry about recruiting teams of people to deliver in-house R&D, and can take advantage of working with experienced academic teams, using a lower level of investment and without taking on any risk of staff or projects.

Which businesses are suited to Knowledge Exchange?

Any business can enter into a Knowledge Exchange programme with a university, but they will be especially useful to two types of SMEs:

  • Companies that are in the first few years of trading, and are in need of training, mentoring and skills support in growing their business.
  • Established companies who recognise the need to innovate and diversify to survive and thrive in the long-term.

The uses and impact of Knowledge Exchange

Coventry University has helped more than 14,000 SMEs to develop and grow in recent years, and the most common ways in which the university has supported businesses include:

  • Strategy development: Helping companies to evolve the structure of their business and how it operates, alongside setting short, medium and long-term goals. Devising a comprehensive business plan forms a key part of this area.
  • Research and development: Helping to identify ways of using new products and services, as well as implementing the research and development itself to provide proof of concept.
  • Diversifying markets: Helping companies understand how their existing product or service can serve new markets.
  • Up-skilling: Enabling businesses to future-proof against emerging industry trends by developing the skillset of their existing workforce via dedicated training programmes.

One of the country’s leading funders of Knowledge Exchange, Innovate UK, has revealed that on average a business that participates in a form of Knowledge Exchange can expect to see an increase of over £240,000 in annual profits before tax, as well as the creation of jobs and up-skilling of staff.

The concept of exchanging knowledge can be applied to virtually any field of work – be that commercial or even helping a community address societal issues. Take a look at a range of case studies highlighting how Coventry University is helping commercial and social enterprises to future proof themselves.

Choose your Knowledge Exchange partner wisely

It’s important that any business that is considering accessing additional support from a university takes its time to make an informed decision about which institution to go for rather than relying on word of mouth.

The Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) – which measures the Knowledge Exchange activities of 135 English universities against each other, will enable each business to select from top ranking universities relevant to their field. The first ever set of KEF results were released in March 2021, in which Coventry University was ranked in the top 10 per cent for public and community engagement, top 20 per cent for skills, enterprise and entrepreneurship, and the top 30 per cent for local growth and regeneration.

The government’s roadmap out of lockdown will be seen by many SMEs as a chance to capitalise on pent-up demand from the public, especially for those businesses in and around Coventry, who have the added bonus of exploring ways in which they can benefit from the city’s year as UK City of Culture, which begins in May.

While the short-term is undeniably important for SMEs’ stability, it’s crucial this doesn’t serve as a distraction to businesses establishing a long-term strategy of how their organisation is going to survive in the long term.

Get in touch with Helen to find out more about how Coventry University Knowledge Exchange can enrich your business.



Tomas Allum