Business & Academia – 5 Exciting Partnerships

The power of corporates and universities combined

Disruptive technology has had a profound impact on academic institutions. STEM subjects have benefitted hugely from new tech, but technological disruption has also changed the way that social studies and economics is taught. As well as working alongside companies, universities (as well as colleges and schools) train students to navigate the changing world. For example, Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University have both opened classes in smart city technology. Academia is a key resource for tech firms, providing hubs of innovation with the knowledge and talent to complete successful projects. Universities in and around Silicon Valley have long associated themselves with the big tech firms in the area, who have used the expertise within them. But how do companies and universities work together, and which businesses have recently teamed up with academic institutions?

1. Google
Google DeepMind is currently collaborating with University College London (UCL) to use AI in radiotherapy treatment. It can take up to four hours for a clinician to work out which cells should be targeted by radiation, but by applying machine learning, DeepMind and UCL are aiming to reduce that time to just one hour. The key resource is UCL’s hospital (UCLH), which is used to train medical students, and the availability of researchers. By using a functional medical environment, DeepMind can apply AI to real-world situations. Earlier this month, Google also donated a cool $10 million to its on-going partners at the University of Washington to fund unspecified research projects.

2. Maersk
Logistics and transportation company Maersk has teamed up with the University of Copenhagen to come up with a Blockchain solution for its cargo inventories. Blockchain has taken the financial world by storm, now traders are using the open, traceable tech to prove the legitimacy of their transactions. The system developed by the University of Copenhagen allows Maersk to give detailed product information of their shipments, making it far easier to pass through extensive security checks. It also takes away endless paper bills by storing them digitally in a general ledger. As if to cement the partnership, Maersk has put its name to a 75 meter-high medical research facility based at the university. Maersk gets a finance and trading solution whilst the University of Copenhagen gets a brand new state-of-the-art building. Everybody wins.

3. Nissan
Alongside Newcastle University, Nissan is developing a project that will enable electric vehicles (EVs) to send unused energy back into the National Grid, making them portable energy storage systems. Professor Phil Taylor has stated that the chargers built by Newcastle University’s School of Electronics and Engineering for Nissan will cut the cost of EVs and therefore encourage adoption. At the moment, Newcastle city council and the university are building a testing centre called Science Central, which will connect to the National Grid and trial the renewable energy solution. Nissan aren’t the only automakers working with academic institutions – this month, McClaren revealed plans to open a new research facility at the University of Sheffield.

4. Ocado Technologies
The scope for robotics is huge, from factory workers to personal companions. However, in order to carry out these roles, robots need to be able to deal with fragile objects as well as bulky components. Ocado Technologies has partnered with a long list of European universities to create a robotic arm that manipulates delicate items without dropping or crushing them. The Soft Manipulation (SoMa) project includes researchers from the Technische Universität Berlin, Università di Pisa, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, the Institute of Science and Technology Austria and Disney Research Zurich. By using multiple universities, Ocado Technologis has access to a wide range of resources. As well as benefitting the company itself, connecting university teams could help in future projects.

5. Microsoft
At the end of January, Microsoft revealed that it would be partnering up with the University of Cambridge to use HoloLens as a tool for the construction industry. One of the on-going trials features the overlay of information on top of physical objects, which would save inspectors the hassle of traipsing round a building site and writing up multiple reports. The Augmented Reality headset could be used to take high-resolution photos on building sites, which could then become incredibly accurate 3D models. Another key application is in bridge maintenance. Using data taken from a local Cambridge bridge, the team is developing mixed reality software that avoids the need to close bridges for inspection. As well as providing expertise, universities are a geographical base.

Universities and innovative businesses are well-matched, exchanging resources and forging important contacts for future projects. Teaming up is beneficial for both parties, as universities receive the support of influential companies whilst the companies gain access to the talent within their chosen academic institution. Universities and colleges also provide companies with a pool of talent. Some firms favour academics from specific locations – for example, Uber hired 40 researchers from the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University in 2015. The depleted department struggled to recover, but it still stands as high praise of the quality of their researchers. It’s also a lesson to universities to be cautious in their partnerships. For the most part, however, academic environments and businesses are a match made in innovation heaven.