Professor Colin Pulham: Industrial partnerships forged in the heat of collaboration are good for universities

The University of Edinburgh has collaborated closely with heat battery ­manufacturer Sunamp Ltd since Interface brokered the partnership more than ten years ago. There has been a real “meeting of the minds” with continual knowledge exchange between the company and academic team through many different approaches including students going on to full time employment for the company.

Professor Colin Pulham, Head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, and winner of the Powerful Partnerships award with Sunamp Ltd at the Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards 2019

Our collaboration has enabled a key breakthrough in the development of heat-storage materials that provide high energy density and reproducible performance over many ­thousands of heating and cooling cycles.

Working together, we have accelerated the development of new energy saving products for the heating, ­ventilation and air conditioning market (HVAC). The underpinning knowledge we have created through the partnership and its application provides many new opportunities.

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I recently answered a few ­questions from Interface about the ­benefits the Powerful Partnership has for my research, the University of Edinburgh and the wider world, and how more business-academic ­collaborations can be established and ­sustained to have positive impacts while tackling some tough issues.

What inspired you to become an academic?

I was inspired during my postgraduate research studies at the University of Oxford – in part by the enthusiasm and passion of my supervisor, Professor Tony Downs, but also by the excitement of the research ­process and in particular the thrill of discovering something new that had never before been reported.

What benefits do collaborating with businesses bring to you, your department and to the university?

The main benefits are as follows:

• New research directions - for example, crystallisation of salt hydrates (phase-change materials) was a new research area for me and the School of Chemistry when we started working with Sunamp

• A tremendous sense of satisfaction and achievement that research conducted in my laboratory has direct impact on tackling climate change, developing commercial products, and improving people’s lives through reducing fuel poverty

• New funding opportunities for research activity through schemes such as Innovate UK and the Energy Technology Partnership

• Exposes students and researchers to industry and its particular challenges. This widens their horizons beyond academia and enhances their employability

Universities in the UK are often criticised as not being ‘best in class’ in commercialising their research – what do you think?

The situation is undoubtedly improving – there is greater awareness by academic colleagues of the importance of demonstrating the potential socio-economic impact of their research. I also see an increased appetite for industrial engagement from academic colleagues.

However, there remains a challenge to take world-leading, excellent research from the laboratory and translate it into commercial products.

Barriers include different timescales of academia and industry; changing priorities of industry and a lack of agility and slow decision-making, particularly for many larger companies.

For me, the real excitement comes through working with small ­companies that are ambitious and have a clear vision of how they are going to change the world – Sunamp is an excellent example.

This requires mutual understanding by both the academic and industrial partner about each other’s ­priorities – perhaps best summarised as a meeting of minds, combined with porous boundaries.

What advice would you give to other academics who have not engaged with industry to the same degree?

Start small and develop the relationship. Be clear at the outset what you and your industrial partner wish to achieve.

What does winning a Scottish Knowledge Exchange Award mean to you?

This is a great honour! It recognises the long-term, sustained effort not just by me and Andrew Bissell (Sunamp CEO), but also by staff and students at the University of Edinburgh and Sunamp who have contributed to the development and implementation of heat-storage technology.

What more needs to happen to have greater engagement between businesses and universities?

Closer interactions between academia and industry – particularly better understanding of each sector’s priorities, ­better streamlining of contractual arrangements – don’t let ­wrangles about intellectual property get in the way of doing the great science – and wider awareness of financial incentives and benefits to each partner.

Professor Colin Pulham, head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, and winner of the Powerful Partnerships award with Sunamp Ltd at the Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards 2019.