How to create a balance between business and academia? Dr. Malcolm Parry, Managing Director of the Surrey Research Park and founder of the UK Science Parks Association, has found that equilibrium, and believes that academics should align their academic activity with an economic perspective, in order to benefit the wider community.
Leaders League. When you first moved to Surrey did you see yourself pioneering the Science Park sector?
Malcolm Parry. UK universities were facing major governmental cuts in 1981 and I took the initiative to try to save my department, raising £20,000 from the business community in the process, and drawing the attention of local journalists to the plight of the department. I fought for something that I valued, but ultimately the department was shut down. However I was asked by the Vice Chancellor to stay on and create a Science Park at the university, and as a result of my research links with industrial companies, I was able to pioneer this idea of an incubator for businesses.
Thanks to my roles in both business and academia, I take an interest in the development of new companies, helping small businesses to get a competitive advantage thereby creating jobs for the community, as well as financing the University and raising our profile. I’ve tried to understand the mechanisms behind business, putting it into practice with UNESCO and the UN Economic Commission to Europe. With these bodies, I advise a number of governments and universities on what they should do to try to create employment, and of the utility of Science Parks in this endeavor. If you have an economy where people are leaving the agricultural economy, going to cities, what do you do in cities? You have a large number of transactions but you also need a knowledge-based economy to help add value to these transactions. In the majority of the countries where I have worked, the universities are in the cities, and so employment needs to be created for those leaving the higher education sector. To contribute to employment growth, most newly created Science Parks are firmly planted in urban areas.
Leaders League. Would you consider yourself a businessman, academic, consultant, or other?
M. P. There is a very defining difference: if you’re an academic, you’re interested in answering questions and you’re always looking for new questions to answer. In business, the only reason you’re ever going to answer a question is to help you reach the money – the majority of the time it’s not about curiosity, it’s about a commercial imperative. The drive for research in the commercial environment is to answer a question that facilitates the creation of an attractive product or service. I would say this is where there is a fundamental difference between thinking in academia and business. I’m fortunate enough to have experienced both roles: working in my capacity as a businessman for the university and trying to understand business in my role as an academic; perhaps on humble note, a jack of both trades and a master of none.
Leaders League. Do you think there is a conflict between academia and business?
M. P. No – but to say this with conviction, these areas need to complement each other: the state must fund early research, building scientific knowledge that can lead to technology with a commercial value. The value judgement of what to fund needs both academic and business input and we have to find ways to encourage entrepreneurs to discover markets for the research. The USA has been pioneering an idea called ‘smart specialization’: entrepreneurs use their skills to find market opportunities for technologies being developed.
You have to see it in the context of what you’re trying to research: if you only conduct research in one narrow area, you might miss out on progress on a broader scale. If the research will lead to a major breakthrough then it’s extremely important, but if it’s just research for the sake of research then the university has lost its focus. The UK has witnessed a change since 1997, meaning that universities are not just about research, but also about supporting the intellectual position contributing to the economic and social development of the country. A number of incentives have also been put into place to encourage businesses to do more research: offering tax credits for research for loss-making small and medium-sized companies and using the patent box program to give tax relief on the commercialization of patents. In universities, academics need to demonstrate either social or economic impact if they want to succeed in securing research funding. In essence you need to align what you’re doing as an academic with an economic perspective but there also needs to be a channel for the most creative and capable to research and develop novel ideas.
Leaders League. What advice would you offer other academics wishing to go into business?
M. P. I would say they need to try to choose a field that has practical applications. That at least gives them a springboard from which they can take ideas and then turn them into commercial ventures. I expect that probably most of the people who go into research today will be aware of the business opportunities associated with their area of expertise. The key is to align their ideas with those opportunities.
In order to be successful, academics should have a partner who has a head for business. Academics who don’t have an inclination for business keep trying to solve the technical problem but they need a business person to stand alongside them and say stop focusing on the problem, we’ve got a good enough product, let’s try and concentrate on the market and make some money out of it. In my experience, the best and most successful companies are those that have found the balance between an inward-looking academic who focuses on the product and an outward-facing businessman, promoting the product. Of course each partner needs to understand each other’s perspective and not do the job of the other person.
Leaders League. In your opinion, what are keys to business growth?
M. P. Not running out of money is the first thing! But also to listen to customers. Customers are the people who pay you. Always try to develop something that will solve a problem for a customer. If you can achieve it on a cost-effective basis, then you’re going to be successful. But you have to keep doing that, you can’t be complacent. In today’s Internet-based business environment, business is globalized and large amounts of money for investment are available, which increases competition, so if you are in business you have to make sure that you always stay ahead. Places like Science Parks provide an advantageous support to businesses in this environment.
Leaders League. How do you overcome challenges and what keeps you going?
M. P. By working in a stable environment in the University, I have been able to build an important research park, and thus raise the profile of the institution and it’s this that has really encouraged me to keep working at understanding growth and development of business.
Thanks to my interest in both business and the academic side of things, I have been able to understand and observe strategies to try to advise a number of countries on encouraging entrepreneurs to work with academics to help build their economies. I see that as part of a very small contribution to a community. I was born in East Africa and I think it’s important that these countries use ideas developed by the Science Park movement to help build technology sectors on which to base growth. The invitation from UNESCO was a great opportunity, because, whilst it’s important to give advice, there are also always opportunities to learn from others’ perspectives. It’s a two-way thing; not only about being rich, but about being wealthy in knowledge.
F. A. E. M.
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