Star opinion: Can The University of Sheffield turn research into cash to plug £100m hole?

Can academics at The University of Sheffield come over all Alan Sugar to fill an anticipated £100m hole?

Tuesday, 30th June 2020, 9:10 am
Koen Lamberts.

And if they can make money from their research, how long will it take?

Time will tell. But it’s a huge ask, especially with a short deadline.

Anticipated student numbers are way down due to the pandemic, just as the university should be focused on welcoming thousands in the autumn.

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The Star Business Editor David Walsh.

A radical new plan set out by vice chancellor Koen Lamberts envisages the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre playing a key part in converting proven ideas into cash. As he outlined to The Star, the university spends £230m on research each year, some of which stops when a paper is published, while some is simply given away.

Mr Lamberts must see this as a potential goldmine in tough times. And although he can’t order academics to do anything, it is reasonable to think they might feel that it’s all hands to the pump.

It matters so much because the university is big enough to power a recovery across the region. And the AMRC has an incredible track record of turning research into millions.

But even if academics find their inner tycoon, can the spin-off companies, licensing deals and joint ventures happen fast enough?

And will it be at the expense of the AMRC’s own pioneering commercial work? It is, after all, the reason Boeing, McLaren, Rolls Royce and more than 100 companies have set up near its base in Catcliffe.

Given its success, it’s no surprise there are other ideas about how it should be run.

And ever since co-founder Keith Ridgway retired in November amid a rumoured clash of cultures, there has been talk of it going independent, allowing it to be more entrepreneurial to attract more big, paying, partners.

The Star understands Local Enterprise Partnership chair James Muir would like to see it play a bigger part in his ‘innovation corridor’ plan. There are other actors in the mix too.

The tug of war continues.

But given the timescales it is likely government help will be required. Mr Lambert’s comments send a clear message: ‘we are doing all we can’.

But ministers, led by controversial adviser and reformist Dominic Cummings - who is not known for his love of the public sector - might demand any bailout requires the AMRC to focus on working with industry.

Then academics can go back to writing papers. But there will likely be fewer of them.