New schools of thought

For small businesses, innovation can come with a price. One way SMEs can get around the cost of research and development is through a partnership with a university. Here, we look at how a partnership between BD Systems and University of Salford has benefited both organisations.

When BD Systems needed an injection of extra brainpower and test facilities, it turned to academia.

The firm designs and supplies composite blast panels for oil and gas platforms. As offshore structures get larger, its products must develop to match the risks.

Common language

BD was able to do limited modelling and static load testing of panels at its Suffolk site. But Managing Director Ian Leppard knew University of Salford had the resources to help it go much further.

After initial visits, Leppard was convinced that the business and the university were “talking the same language” - and a partnership was born.

“It enabled my business to access people, knowledge and facilities that we might not have been able to otherwise,” he explains. “Since we only have sporadic needs for this kind of testing, we couldn't justify a permanent investment.”

It enabled my business to access people, knowledge and facilities that we might not have been able to otherwise.

Ian Leppard, Managing Director, BD Systems

Real-world challenge

The university gained, too, not least in being allowed to tackle real-world business challenges. “We want the curriculum to be relevant to the real world,” says Joe Flanagan, Business Development Manager, Research & Enterprise.

University of Salford has several partnerships with big firms, but was keen to connect with SMEs, too. “We want graduates who are work-ready. Many of them will end up with SMEs and we felt strongly that we needed to develop those connections,” explains Flanagan.

Aware of the funding difficulties many smaller firms face when trying to access specialist facilities, the University launched its Innovation Voucher scheme earlier this year as part of its strategy of working more closely with business through its 'Industrial Collaboration Zones'. BD Systems was able to apply successfully for a grant towards the cost of its testing programme.

Mutual trust

According to Leppard, a successful collaboration with a university requires listening, full engagement and respect.

In BD's case, each party had enough confidence in the other to go ahead without putting a confidentiality agreement in writing. “It would be important if IP was involved, but in this instance we were happy to have a gentlemen's agreement,” Leppard says.

He found the relationship with Salford's School of Computing, Science and Engineering to be highly productive.

“They were responsive and genuinely interested in BD's business,” he adds. “They came up with some good ideas and were keen to find ways of presenting the data that would be most useful to us.”

Invaluable knowledge

As a result of the University's testing and analysis, BD is now armed with findings that it can use to evaluate blast panels of different lengths and widths.

Leppard believes many other firms could benefit in similar ways: “University teams can deliver a broader perspective that might even give rise to new ideas for future development,” he says.

“For us, the University team delivered invaluable knowledge that will provide watertight data for product certification. With a never-ending R&D programme, I'm certainly open to future university partnerships.”

University teams can deliver a broader perspective that might even give rise to new ideas for future development.

Ian Leppard, Managing Director, BD Systems

Thought leadership from HSBC

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