Building scale through networks

Case study 3: N8 Universities, the HPC Super Computer

The N8 group, established in 2007, is a collaboration of the eight most research intensive universities in the North of England.27 The N8 benefits from an effective scale of partners built through researchers and businesses working collaboratively. By bidding together for national level funding N8 invested in a High Performance Computer (HPC), the network then sought collaborations with businesses in cities across the North of England with a tangible offer of valuable infrastructure.

Networks across cities can bring together research interests from universities and businesses to validate larger investments.

The N8 HPC centre is based at the University of Leeds but provides access to high performance computing facilities for private sector researchers from across the North of England. The centre is funded by £3.25 million from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) and operates Polaris, one of the 250 most powerful computers in the world. Polaris enables researchers to undertake complex modelling involving large amounts of data in various different fields such as life sciences, energy, digital media and aerospace.

Investing in infrastructure can establish an offer to build new relationships with businesses.

The HPC investment was made with the aim  for research to be more cost effective for both universities and businesses and provide researchers with access to state-of-the-art equipment. Individually, none of the small businesses that use it would have been able to afford the investment required to buy the computer. Similarly justifying the funding for high tech equipment to just one university would have been difficult.

Cities can reduce barriers and costs for businesses to use this infrastructure by implementing a framework of supportive measures.

The N8 sought to create new collaborations between industry and researchers by establishing and matching industry needs with university strengths through the Industry Innovation Forum (IIF). This forum identifies ways in which the HPC can be used by businesses as well as establishing relationships with businesses that approach the N8. The IIF adds further value by enabling cross sector innovation and knowledge exchange from different departments, different universities and different businesses. Furthermore the N8 and IIF makes it easier for businesses to access a single ‘port of call’ and be directed to a department or university that has the relevant expertise or infrastructure to help.

The N8 are establishing other ways to reduce the cost to businesses of using the HPC. Currently there is a focus on how equipment sharing between universities can meet the terms of VAT cost sharing models – traditionally seen as a barrier to sharing research assets. Firms are also offered consulting and training to lower the barriers they face in exploring ‘big-data analyses.’28 Interest from over 100 SMEs across the North of England in the first couple of months appear to show there is the potential for this to be a significant regional asset.

By working across cities, networks bring about large scale benefits that would not otherwise be realised. The N8 network used the HPC beyond their own innovative research requirements as a way of building an ‘offer’ to businesses by proactively looking for collaborations across the region. The selling point of the HPC makes it ‘worth the travel’ for businesses across the different cities and the partnership put in measures – such as flexible e-training modules and the IIF – to reduce the barriers for firms to access the equipment.

Cities can enable businesses and universities to access a service through networks of collaborative partners. Building an effectively implemented support framework can remove the barriers for businesses to benefit.

Case study 4: Interface Network Scotland, Food and Drink

Interface Food & Drink is a network of universities and businesses driven by industry demand in Scotland to close a gap in innovation investment. The network aims to foster a culture of open innovation in the sector through collaborations between industry and academia. It forms part of the wider Interface group which shares research findings between Scottish Universities.

Cities can build networks based on comparative advantages.

Interface Food & Drink is a partnership of Scotland’s 17 universities as well as industry groups such as Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Enterprise, trade associations and trade bodies. One example of the network’s benefit was a local commercial bakery that was introduced to ultrasound technology – originally developed by Herriot Watt University for medical implant polymers – to improve the baking process of gluten free products. This cross sector innovation facilitated by a large network can result in unexpected research opportunities and in this case commercial gains from patented technology.

The network of departments and researchers allows for the scale to match expertise and opportunities that would otherwise be beyond the capacity of a single partner.

Our interviews found that a particular attraction for high-growth firms to the Interface network was to match expertise from different universities to businesses through a single forum. The network facilitates this by matching businesses with the relevant research department from any of the 17 Universities. This means businesses don’t have to spend time establishing who the ‘right person’ to contact is as Interface consists of a broader range of research expertise than if with a single institution.

The network supports businesses regardless of whether they are considered high-growth, but this brings its own risks. The remit to work with SMEs has meant that some early research projects were abandoned due to capacity shortages associated with smaller businesses. To combat this, Interface has worked with bringing groups of businesses with common issues together.

Often these common interest groups are made up of competing firms. For example farmers from across Scotland form the Scottish Cold Pressed Rapeseed Oil Industry Group (SCPROIG) work with different university researchers to quantify the benefits of local soil conditions to their product and therefore their collective competitive advantage. Alternatively, those brought together may have a shared interest but be from unrelated business areas. For example meat, agriculture and drinks businesses all wished to lower their waste levels and the costs associated with this. Through collaborating with researchers from the mathematics departments of different Scottish universities, they have used new algorithm based modelling techniques to cut waste.

Interface demonstrates how cities can support collaborations by working to different scales and establishing a central network to match expertise with business challenges.

This network works with businesses to gain the appropriate scale to invest in research and development i.e. undertaking the research may not be cost-effective for one business but forming a common interest group makes it affordable. It then matches these needs from businesses with professors and departments across 17 Scottish Universities to find the most appropriate responses.

By assembling different groups of partners the network can deliver targeted solutions to problems identified by businesses; increasing the innovative advantages of the businesses and creating applied research opportunities for the universities and professors.

Footnotes