17th May 2016
by Edward Sheppard

Small and medium-sized businesses need to remain relevant.

This is particularly important for medical device manufacturers as well as the wider life science community as technology continues to evolve.

In most cities today a university exists. Business owners may see these establishments simply as a place of learning particularly for undergraduate students but they should look beyond this.

Universities are heavily involved with academic research and supporting industry. The Government recognises the benefits of universities helping to drive world class innovation that few SME’s can seriously consider on their own and they will support projects with funding.

Indeed, they push the academics to engage with companies and measure their success on such factors.

Therefore, your local university is ready and willing to help, and SME’s who take up this opportunity will ultimately be the winners.

Just friends? – No. More like partners

It is now relatively easy to make contact thanks to university websites and social media and there are teams directly involved with commercial engagement who will sell the services a university has to offer.

The challenge is to match their capabilities with your needs and expectations in the future. A long-term relationship is much more likely to deliver results than a one-off exercise. When contacts, knowledge and trust are built up, it is easier for both to see where the real potential lies.

Now a relationship is established, what shall we do?

There are a myriad of funded projects and schemes, often developed by the EU, National or Local Governments which offer the SME working with a university plenty of scope progress an idea.

However, regulations are subject to frequent change so it is important to remain aware of these. Fortunately, your university friends are experts in keeping up to date with these and will be able to decipher any alterations.

Collaboration is the key and many ventures feature a research task that has the potential to lead to a new product or process. These Smart Schemes or Collaborative Industrial Research Projects, as they are often known mix academics with one or more SME’s with the aim of achieving the desired output for each.

The University gains seminars, publications, and citations and each SME advances a product or process to a marketable conclusion. A word of caution here, because this can be at the frontiers of knowledge one programme alone may not produce the final outcome, which makes the ultimate goal more valuable.

As an SME, we have been involved in a number of schemes, primarily with Cardiff School of Engineering, Swansea University and The School of Management. This has been a worthwhile investment in time and resources because we have learnt so much.

For new products, our challenges have yet to be fulfilled, but we have valuable life cycle analysis data on the environmental benefits of our Cervical Rotating Biopsy Punch, which has 2.5 x less impact than our earlier instruments brought in from the Far East.

We have also worked with the Beacon Project on biocomposites, across Welsh Universities on our Ear Specula range. The aim is to make these out of “grow in a field” sustainable resources in future and now we know this is feasible, it is an objective for further development.

Do you have a friend who can help us?

Once you have worked with a university department, it is amazing how easy it is to pose questions to them. We are regularly improving the quality of our products by tightening the specifications we adhere to.

The pressure required to activate the grip on our sterile single-use Bipolar Forceps is a current enquiry that our friends in Swansea are working on.

When you have such networks it is amazing what an SME can get; for instance, DTR Medical has been helped with CAD work, 3D printing, chemical cleaning, printing on metal techniques, product stresses, reverse engineering of components and insulation properties.

Access to the experts is way beyond what an SME could expect or achieve from internet searches. It enhances our image and gives us an air of sophistication to promote our Quality & Service position in the single-use market.

As Friends, can we help you?

As I have demonstrated, working with a university will be a win for them and a win for the SME. But the traffic is not all one-way.

As institutions of learning, your friendly university needs to attract students to its courses and this is another way both parties can benefit from the relationship.

With graduate employment no longer being guaranteed, there is an attraction to those colleges who offer work experience of differing lengths, which help the student’s employability after university.

The KTP, or Knowledge Transfer Partnership of three years, is probably the headline scheme for SME’s and universities to take advantage of. At the opposite scale, two or three-month final year projects and access to Masters programmes enable short-term targets to be undertaken by students.

For DTR Medical, the best scheme has undoubtedly been the “Year in Industry” where Management and Engineering students spend their third year with us in Marketing or New Product Development.

They bring skills, knowledge a desire to learn and enthusiasm to the company and with the experience of over 10 students, we strongly recommend this programme to other SME’s.

Each person has made a significant contribution to our company development, and we are delighted to see most of those who have graduated achieve first class degrees and are building successful careers in our industry.

Indeed, one of our first students, re-joined after graduation and now leads the NPD Team successfully, handling all product and process development and accompanying regulatory work. This year, our first marketer will return, in the summer once she has completed her course.

This type of partnership really is WIN:WIN:WIN; the student gets a great start in their career, the University can promote this to attract students in the future; the SME gets help to develop and grow including ready-made team members who understand the company.

It is nice to have friends

I have set out how an SME can take advantage of having a strong relationship with the local universities. Those who do will see their business thrive because they utilise the knowledge and skills of both the faculty members and the future working population.

It is a very satisfying experience to know someone who can bring valuable help in so many different ways.

Go on, find a friend.

[Caption] Feature image includes Lead Project Engineer, Matthew Franks discussing a project with Marketing and Engineering students on placement at DTR Medical.