Dr Celia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise), reflects on the central role of universities in working alongside their partners to drive the economic and societal recovery that we all want to see.
Almost five months ago UCL asked many of us to work from home, just ahead of the government telling us to ’stay safe, protect the NHS, save lives’. We all understood how important it was to play our part in supporting the NHS as it did its vital job of caring for people with COVID-19. Indeed, many UCL staff and colleagues worked tirelessly for the NHS on the frontline. Others mobilised research and innovation projects at great speed, such as the team behind the UCL Ventura breathing aid for COVID-19 patients, now being used in over 40 NHS hospitals with 105 countries around the world requesting the free designs. Many more of us have also worked to maintain essential services during this time.
What was less obvious was the scale of economic, educational and societal damage that would come this national response. Job cuts, children and young people losing months of education, the stark exposure and exacerbation of many inequalities within our society, whole swathes of our economy, hospitality, tourism, the creative sector, air travel to name but a few, likely to be affected for years to come.
I have been in meetings recently discussing many elements of these immense challenges with major national bodies including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Bank of England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has just published the UK R&D Roadmap. A recurrent theme from all of these interactions is the importance of universities in the recovery that we all want to see: important in the partnerships we build; our contribution to the places we are based; and to the translation of ideas into innovative solutions.
Whilst all universities will play a role in this recovery, UCL has a remarkable opportunity. Our track record in creating, supporting and nurturing new high-growth companies is recognised nationally, and by government, as being outstanding. Indeed, UCL is now among the top three UK Universities at translating its knowledge and know-how externally. Crucially UCL now leads the UK in terms of external investment in spinouts and value of collaborative research with external non-academic partners. To support the translation of research ideas and technologies into commercial application, we have just announced the first close of the UCL Technology Fund £100 million Fund 2. Meanwhile, our Global Innovation Team continues to support 180 regional SMEs, which has helped them win £2.3 million in contracts and grants since April.
We also have an ever-richer approach to building partnerships with businesses, public sector and other bodies through which we can understand their needs and bring UCL research and innovation to bear on these. This has continued apace during the last few months. Through some in-depth conversations with companies such as Wincanton (logistics), Sainsbury’s, Transport for London (TfL), the creative and digital sectors, and others, we have an enhanced understanding of the impact of COVID-19 not only on them but also on our society.
This understanding is feeding into new research and innovation projects and programmes which, alongside education, are the life-blood of UCL. A great early example is the work of Professor Sarah Hawkes (UCL Institute for Global Health) on gender disparity in terms of Covid-19 impact. Her team has been building a data library within Global Health 50/50, to serve as the most comprehensive global tracking programme for COVID-19’s impact by sex and analysed by gender. The programme includes data captured in 120 countries, with 21 African nations, and is delivered through UCL Consultants and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
All this absolutely helps to ensure UCL is ready to engage with the UK R&D Roadmap, with its focus on innovation and bringing benefit to the breadth of the UK.
These difficult and different times are far from over; but just as our community played a vital part in the immediate response to the crisis, it is reassuring and motivating to know that together we at UCL can help in the long-term societal and economic recovery.