In November 2015, Dairy Crest (DC), a leading British dairy company, opened its Innovation Centre (IC) on the campus of Harper Adams University (HAU), the UK’s largest specialist higher education institution in the field of agri-food, in Edgmond in Shropshire. It is a unique development between a major food business and a university, perhaps the only big partnership in the food processing sector in the UK so far. The establishment of the IC followed pre-existing, though more occasional, relations between the two partners. Both partners have had traditional links to the region (Shropshire), which has a historic association with dairy production, and HAU is well known and respected for its leading role in food, farming and science education. The IC came at a time when universities and businesses were being increasingly encouraged to work together to support economic growth.
A mutually beneficial partnership…
The common motivation of both partners to set up the IC was to encourage young people looking at their career options to consider the opportunities presented by the food industry. However, there were also economic motivations. DC aims to deliver 10% of year-on-year growth through new product development; with scientific research, technology and product development at the core of this objective, the new IC contributes to achieving this goal. In a world where issues of food security and sustainability are now at the top of political and agri-food industry agendas, finding ways to increase interaction and knowledge flow between academia and the food industry for commercial and societal benefits is important. Sharing the campus with the university allows DC to benefit from cross-fertilisation of people and ideas with the university and to consolidate their technical and research expertise. HAU, in return, established a working academic collaboration, which entails more than having a commercial site on the university campus, and gains support from DC for the university’s curriculum in the form of opportunities for undergraduate students and graduates to apply their skills and knowledge in an industrial setting.
…leading to several strands of activities in research and education, …
Students and graduates are at the core of the education activities and have access to the technical expertise and state-of-the-art facilities of the IC. The aim is to improve students’ experiences and add value from the commercial environment. The IC take two students for placements annually, principally in the field of product and packaging innovation. Students on placement spend one year fully integrated into the IC research teams’ work. Another way for the IC to engage with HAU students is through their final-year projects, which students must conduct as part of their Honours Degree.
The IC’s staff also provide numerous lectures at HAU every year and are involved in curriculum development at HAU. The IC staff participate in the panels responsible for the design of modules and courses, and they provide both informal and formal contributions. Earlier in 2016, HAU and DC created a new lectureship in Animal Science and Bioinformatics, the aim of which is to help expand the portfolio of research into a prebiotic food ingredient, which has dairy origins, to the animal feeds sector.
There are also joint research projects conducted between HAU and the IC. These provide HAU academic and research staff with opportunities to experience the commercial environment, but they also give DC a link into leading academic research within the agriculture and food sectors. For HAU, these projects might potentially deliver some high-quality scientific research outputs that can be submitted as the university’s results to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF).
…whilst achieving considerable impacts
Students’ testimonials show that they are happy with the placements at the IC and find this experience extremely valuable, giving them real hands-on experience from a workplace in a big commercial company. Being able to work on products for a retailer or major brand is an exciting opportunity and it gives them a better understanding of new product development. 99.4% of the HAU graduates who undertook a placement are employed.
There are already signs at HAU that the IC has shifted the focus of their research, for example in livestock farming. HAU has already started to build on this partnership and one hub of the brand-new Engineering and Precision Farming Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI), which is government-funded, is now being built in physical proximity to the IC. The Centre will involve 70 companies and three universities. There has also been an impact on the region because integrating the IC in the campus has preserved jobs and business opportunities in the region and retained valuable knowledge in Shropshire.
The collaborative partnership between HAU and DC has been awarded the ‘Most Innovative Contribution to Business-University Collaboration’ category in the Times Higher Education (THE) Awards 2016. The award recognises the embeddedness of DC researchers in HAU as an effective method to develop a pioneering knowledge sharing partnership in an industry with traditionally low R&D.
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