KESS 2, connecting academia & industry through research
KESS 2, led by Bangor University
Dec 11 | 6 minutes read
There’s a grain of truth in the oft-repeated adage of the digital era that goes: “innovate or die”.
A failure to innovate was what saw some of the world’s most famous brands from the 50s to the 90s go under shortly after the turn of the century.
But the stark truth has hit home for most since then. Today, innovation dominates the headlines of nearly every business success story.
And it was this that introduced the business realm to ‘open innovation’ in 2011, a concept created by a US professor that advocates closing the gap between business and academia to accelerate innovation. Underpinning it is the observable fact that no company, no matter how experienced, state-of-the-art or large, could innovate effectively on its own.
As an increasing number of companies today recognise this and turn to open innovation as a more profitable and effective method of innovation, universities have captured the spotlight as an invaluable source of talent, technology and technical know-how.
But where some might falter is not knowing where to start.
The reason for this lies not in the lack of interest to collaborate but rather in the dearth of information on how to do so and the absence of a single, overarching architecture that bridges both worlds.
For Welsh businesses, the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS) offers that architecture.
Where blue skies thinking meets applied research
A pan-Wales operation supported by European Social Funds (ESF) through the Welsh Government, KESS is the much-needed bridge between industry and academia.
It pairs companies and organisations with academic expertise on collaborative research projects, with scholars working towards a PhD or Research Masters qualification.
Projects are integrated with a higher-level skills training programme, with scholars receiving the necessary guidance on how to navigate a commercial setting as they develop their projects.
A rare opportunity for academics, who are often criticised for lacking commercial acumen, the first iteration of the programme that ran from 2009 to 2014 was very successful, achieving 230 PhD and 223 Research Masters projects across the five years.
The projects varied widely and cut across disciplines of critical value to the Welsh economy, from life sciences and health to ICT and the digital economy; low carbon, energy and the environment; and advanced engineering and materials.
Armed with the experience, KESS alumni have nothing but praise for the programme.
Among them is Jane Davies, or rather, Dr Jane Davies as she is better known today, who graduated with her PhD in 2014 after spending five years in KESS.
Deep in the trenches of industry
According to Dr Davies, she started her KESS journey with no prior experience of working in the commercial sector.
“I’d worked all of my career within the NHS, so I was completely naive,” she admits.
Dr Davies is a qualified nurse, receiving her registration back in 1997. She spent a good part of her early career working in the fields of vascular surgery, primary care and energy medicine in the UK and abroad, before committing eight years to research.
In October 2011, Dr Davies joined KESS to earn her PhD and was paired with Huntleigh Healthcare, a leading global provider of innovative and high-quality medical equipment for healthcare professionals.
There, she worked on a project to help the firm improve their design of an automated device to help patients suffering from peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a lesser-known branch of cardiovascular disease that involves the narrowing of arteries that reduces blood flow to the limbs.
A major problem with PAD is that up to two-thirds of sufferers don’t show symptoms of the disease, which is typically a pain in the legs while walking. This has resulted in calls for a PAD screening solution capable of identifying these cases to enable early preventative measures.
Through KESS, Dr Davies was able to help Huntleigh achieve this.
Her research showed that with minimal training, Huntleigh’s Dopplex Ability ABI system could effectively compare the blood pressure reading of the arm and the ankle to identify signs of PAD in the patient. This makes PAD screening a much more amenable process and improves patient care.
Dr Davies credits her success to the support she received through KESS.
“KESS allowed me to design my research without any restriction and as a result, I was allowed to have a really robust design,” she explains.
Thanks to KESS funding, the project’s every need was provided for, from a travel budget that enabled Dr Davies to visit and monitor the patients she’d recruited for the study, to allocation for equipment purchase.
“A very important part of my research was that I was very keen to go out and see patients that I recruited… patients who were perhaps housebound and wouldn’t normally be able to take part in research.
“As a result of the KESS travel budget, I was able to do all of that. I travelled quite widely and I think that greatly improved my research findings,” Dr Davies says.
A win-win collaboration
Though Dr Davies’ research and KESS’ support, Huntleigh was able to position themselves as a voice of authority within the market.
The firm was pleased with the outcome of the project.
“We were able to obtain applied research at a relatively low cost, and it helped us improve our product,” Huntleigh Diagnostic Products Division Business Unit Manager Dr Jon Evans said.
“The experience with Jane was excellent,” he added.
For Dr Davies, the KESS experience continues to pay dividends today and has extended far beyond the limits of academia. More than achieving her PhD and academic kudos for her research, the graduate said she also gained from the skills training opportunities the project provided.
The KESS project even put her through public speaking training, which has helped sharpen her oratory skills and given her the confidence to present at international conferences, both of which are essential to a researcher’s success.
Like collaboration, communication is critical to science and innovation. For academics, the ability to present ideas to industry or the public in digestable forms could be the difference between receiving funding or not.
For Dr Davies, this will no longer be a problem.
“Public speaking… was really an issue for me. But via KESS, I did two public speaking courses and as a result, I felt much more equipped to present at international conferences.
“I’ve actually won some awards for my public speaking so it’s obviously worked out well,” she says.
Since KESS, Dr Davies has gone on to greater heights in her career. She’s worked as lead research nurse for the Centre for Trials Research and was also the research nurse lead on several other commercial studies for big pharma firms such as Swiss multinational healthcare F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG.
She urges others to apply for KESS, saying the knowledge and skills she gained from the programme has helped expand her career possibilities.
“I am really grateful, I feel very privileged to have been successful in gaining the scholarship with KESS… and I would certainly actively encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to do it to go for it.”
KESS is now in its second iteration, KESS 2, which will provide 645 scholarships over the course of six years. Led by Bangor University in partnership with all of the other Welsh universities, the programme is now open to businesses and academia in the North, West Wales and the South Wales Valleys.
For more information on the programme, contact KESS 2 Wales Manager Penny Dowdney at +44(0)1248 382266 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.