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Activating Impact winners 2013 – Wendy Nicholson and team

In 2013 BBSRC launched the new Activating Impact competition to acknowledge and celebrate successful Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation (KEC) teams making an essential contribution to delivering impact from excellent bioscience research. As part of the Fostering Innovation event, the award was won by Dr Wendy Nicholson’s team at the University of Edinburgh and The Roslin Institute, and was announced alongside the established Innovator of the Year competition, which was won by Ryan Donnelly , Anna Hine and Peter Mertens in 2013.

How does it feel to win?

It never gets tiring to be congratulated! It was quite shocking to be honest, we were really really chuffed. I felt quite stressed representing the whole team rather than just myself, and we weren't expecting to win.

Dr Wendy Nicholson (right) and Dr Sonja Vujovic (left) are the first winners of the BBSRC Activating Impact competition. Image: Tim Gander
Dr Wendy Nicholson (right) and Dr Sonja Vujovic (left) of the University of Edinburgh and The Roslin Institute are the first winners of the BBSRC Activating Impact competition. Image: Tim Gander

Describe your winning impact activities…

We picked three activities and we also picked a thematic area to run them in – infectious diseases.

First, to identify some technology scouts and by that we mean people who will identify and flush out areas of activity and innovation. Normally that would be the business development staff who are embedded in the school, but we did think it would be interesting to try with post-docs active in research areas. A lot of these post-docs are trying to get permanent positions and many of them are not going to manage it, so it does open up some experience for them to work more on the impact side and see if they like it. So we'll identify a small number and give them some internal training and if they're really keen some external formal training.

And what else?

The second part is to set up some workshops to get researchers working together and thinking about areas where research will help and have impact. That's not to say they're not doing it just now, but to get them thinking about what are the global challenges they could help solve. We will do that just with academics at first, then maybe with the technology scouts, and maybe if it works bring companies in. We want to make sure we can crawl before we can run and try our best to get it to work, but I think I'll be disappointed if we don't have companies come in at all.

And the last part?

Third, we have some other Research Council money to improve our impact and we've focused on engagement with companies by building secondments with industry – that could be somebody from the university being based in a company or somebody in a company coming into the university. And that's to improve relationships and get people talking the same language. We will also be able to tap into the other teams and their workshops to develop this.

So all three ideas tie into one another?

They do, yes. On simple terms we've picked a thematic area and we're going to try and get academics to think a bit more about the outputs of their research and engage with companies – a three-pronged attack if you like.

And why infectious diseases as your thematic area?

It does get quite a bit of BBSRC funding at the university and fits within the research remit of BBSRC. And it cuts across schools and colleges, which brings challenges as well as opportunities as it's quite multi-disciplinary. We fit our university business team around university structure, so we have a small team of four or five to deliver this rather than a single person to help spread the load. Winning the competition will help us to do it at a level we couldn't otherwise have done.

How difficult is it now to get academics to think about impact?

It's the easiest it's ever been. Mainly because of the activities of the UK Government and the Scottish Government, filtered through BIS (UK Government – Business, Innovation and Skills) into the Research Councils, as well as through the Scottish Funding Council – all that dialogue is about impact.

So it's easier than it's ever been – but it's not easy! There are a lot more academics understanding the importance of impact and wanting to see the impacts of their research. When I first started in this sector that was a minority, and in the space of 10-15 years we have seen a shift in that. I think the Research Excellence Frameworks [REF, for assessing quality in higher education], whether people like it or not, has influenced that quite a bit because impact is quite a bit of the assessment. That definitely has got people's attention high up in universities – academics who don't have decent enough societal impact through public engagement or have potential economic outputs might not get returned. That's helping us to do our job without doubt.

Are you looking forward to implementing these three plans?

Once I was over the shock of winning that was the really positive feeling – that we'll get to try this. It would have been disappointing to not be able to carry it out.

Dr Wendy Nicholson (middle) and Dr Sonja Vujovic (left) collect the award from BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Douglas Kell. Image: Tim Gander
Dr Wendy Nicholson (middle) and Dr Sonja Vujovic (right) collect the award from BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Douglas Kell. Image: Tim Gander

Is the £50K award a significant amount of money?

Absolutely! Because we're not going to employ anyone new, we'll have enough money to facilitate workshops, to train people, and to facilitate the secondments.

This award allows us to do this in a fairly small pilot but we need to work out a strategy that makes the step changes we need to deliver the impact agenda over the next 5-10 years and that is a huge but exciting challenge.

How will you measure the impacts of your own impact award?!

We will be looking at outputs we measure regularly – metrics like licences to companies, and whether they were existing companies or spin-outs. In terms of engagement with industries we know if contracts before were for consulting or research, so we can look to see if we have more connectivity in those areas.

Is this type of competition useful for the Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation (KEC) sector?

It's useful definitely for the obvious reasons – it gets us thinking about things differently. It challenged us. We did present to the panel how we felt we were performing and where we could improve. So it was a really good exercise for us.

What would you consider to be the strengths of your team?

I'm part of a great team that pulls together and wants to do a great job. We are all from research backgrounds so have a genuine interest, but we have all worked in different sectors like industry and government to bring different experiences to the team. I'm very proud of my team and perhaps a bit biased but we are starting to get external recognition like this BBSRC Activating Impact award as well as my close colleague Dr Sonja Vujovic winning the PraxisUnico Knowledge Transfer (KT) Achiever of the Year in 2012.

What other areas of KEC have you been working on with BBSRC?

The BBSRC Industrial Partnership Awards (IPA) that wouldn't happen if we didn't have a business development team getting people to work together. We have quite a few LINK projects at Roslin on animal health. We also have the discoveries on the FluPep [a novel family of peptides with potent activity against influenza A viruses] which we researched with BBSRC funding then a Pathfinder award, then a Follow-on Fund (FoF) to make it more market ready.

We also have a vaccine delivery system for cattle which was explored and developed with industry through a BBSRC IPA and we are now looking to secure a BBSRC SuperFoF to make the final developments we can at the university to make it attractive for commercial development. One of our favourite KEC case studies relates to salmon fish farming where BBSRC research led to a discovery that has been adopted into the salmon breeding program and helped reduce mortality and morbidity making a significant economic and animal welfare impact for the industry.

How did you get into KEC?

I have a science background as a microbiologist; I got a first degree and a PhD, then worked as a post-doc and then moved into clinical trials. I did a part-time MBA (Master of Business Administration) with the idea of getting more involved with business activities and then saw an advert for a job in Edinburgh University on the business development side, it was quite a lucky thing for me, and studying for MBA made me think more about doing something like this. I was lucky to get in early enough as it's a more evolved sector now – people coming in tend to have more experience.

The Activating Impacts and Innovator awards were awarded at the Fostering Innovation 2013 event, attended by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science. Image: Tim Gander
The Activating Impacts and Innovator awards were awarded at the Fostering Innovation 2013 event, attended by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science. Image: Tim Gander

How long have you been working in this sector?

It's my 14th year now and I absolutely love it! It's so interesting and changes all the time. It's the best job I've ever had.

How has the KE field changed in the 14 years you've been doing it?

The most fundamental change in last 2-3 years is the Scottish and UK governments actually putting their money where their mouths are and saying "we want this to happen but here's funding to make it happen". So the impact agenda has definitely made the job easier.

When I started this job, some academics would tell me what I did was abhorrent, that they didn't come into an academic environment to work with industry or to try to sell technologies. Now universities have been into these activities for a while. On the policy and public engagement side there has been quite a change in the attitude of academics. And back on the tech transfer side they are more positive about getting it out there and someone using it.

And the worst change?

Despite the fact that funding has improved quite a bit, real core funding to make a significant step-change in the activity is still lacking. Research and teaching is the top priority at a university like Edinburgh. That always makes it tough because it's like working with one hand tied behind your back, which is odd because I just said we have more money, but it's not enough to step up in the way we should.

What are the biggest challenges facing KEC professionals now?

The next key element for me is that it's not the KEC team's job to deliver this in isolation, it's our job to work with the academics to deliver this and we need to get more of a team approach across professional services and academic staff in the Higher Education Institute sector.

When did you realise you wanted to go into science?

Even at primary school we had a teacher one day a week who would tell us about Flemming and Lister and I used to find that history of science really interesting. Then at secondary school I liked science subjects from an early age.

Tags: The University of Edinburgh commercialisation innovation The Roslin Institute feature