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How to access free research and development

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By Mark Reed, Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation, School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, Newcastle University

Most small businesses have limited research and development (R&D) budgets, but some are working with some of the world’s leading researchers without having to pay them a penny. 

You can find researchers who will help with your R&D for free in two ways:
• Do you have a new idea you want to explore, to see if it might be feasible in practice? Go to Pathway 1
• Do you want to apply existing knowledge or research to develop, test and launch something new? Go to Pathway 2


Pathway 1: Get leading researchers to help you develop an idea from scratch
If you have a new idea that is novel and significant, you can work with top researchers to examine its feasibility in the context of your business:

1. Decide if you will wait until you can afford a consultancy project to retain IP or if you want to act now. You might sit on your idea for your whole life and never know if it might have worked, and even if you don’t have exclusive rights to the IP, you can still get first-mover advantage.

2. Develop a pitch to a top research group in your field, explaining what is particularly novel and significant about your idea. To do this, get help from organisations like the Knowledge Transfer Network or identify relevant early-career academics whose interests align with yours and ask if they can help you turn your ideas into a 1-2 page concept note.


3. Co-develop a proposal for research funding with top researchers, helping them write their “pathway to impact” explaining how your company and others like you will benefit from the research.

4. Negotiate a contract with the university so you know exactly where you stand with any IP arising from your work with them.

Pathway 2: Get leading researchers to help you use existing research 
If you are able to generate significant and far-reaching benefits from the use of UK research published since 2000, you can get help from top researchers to deploy their research in your business:

1. Do a Google Scholar search to identify if the knowledge or ideas you want to use came from research by UK HEIs and was published since the year 2000.

2. Identify the researcher behind the work, check their institution at the time of publication and then Google them to see if they have moved. If they have moved, see if you can build on some of their more recent work at the new institution or reach out to their former institution.


3. Reach out to the lead researcher and explain how you can create significant and far-reaching impacts from their research. Universities are given £0.3-0.5 million by the Government for each case study of impact they generate from research, which is may be worth more than they would get from consultancy or licensing. Articulate the benefits to your company and beyond, and how you could roll this out at scale, whether through the expansion of your own business or working with others. For inspiration, read examples of case studies that received top-scores at http://www.fasttrackimpact.com/top-rated-impact-case-studies 

4. Work out if there are any IP issues that might limit what you can do with the research. If the university wants to charge a high licensing fee contact professional services staff who are responsible for driving impact from research (typically called impact or REF teams). If your work could lead to a top-scoring impact case study, they may be able to make the case that their institution would in fact benefit more by granting access to the IP for free to get a much higher reward from the impact than they could via a license fee. 

5. Co-design a pathway to impact with the researchers to achieve impact, for example using the Fast Track Impact Planning Template (see resources page at http://www.fasttrackimpact.com/resources).

6. Collect evidence of impact as you go, and provide a testimonial and any other evidence of impact, to help the researchers write it up as a case study. 


Not all small businesses will be able to take these pathways to impact but, for those who can, there is the opportunity to work with world-leading researchers who would not typically work with even the largest companies (as they do not typically do consultancy work). 

You may be a small business, but you can have a big impact if you learn how to harness the power of the world’s top researchers.