Building the ‘infrastructure’ for innovation and translation

The Medical Sciences Division’s Business Partnerships Office is celebrating ten years of developing productive relationships and supporting effective collaborations with industry.

diagram of infrastructure(Credit: Shutterstock)
The Business Partnerships Office was Highly Commended in the ‘Building Capacity’ category of the Vice Chancellor’s Awards 2020

The Business Partnerships Office (BPO) supports the establishment and long-term sustainability of strategic research alliances between industry and academia. Dr Maxine Allen, Director of Business Partnerships for the Medical Sciences Division (MSD) explains: ‘Our focused remit allows us to provide the necessary resources to develop, deliver and support long-term collaborations and we have been instrumental in setting up strategic partnerships. We work in creative ways to connect industry and academics and help cut through the complexity of both University and industry procedures and processes’.

Oxford MSD has a long tradition of industry collaboration, but until 2010 relationships were typically held by individual researchers, focused on discrete pieces of research, and might be lost at the end of the project. The Business Partnerships Office, established in 2010 and led by Dr Maxine Allen, has allowed the development of strategic, multi-year relationships in which academics and companies can develop shared research agendas and innovate together. 

‘Deeper collaboration with industry has given us access to new knowledge and market insight, and to ‘in-kind’ resources such as chemical reagents and new technologies,’ says Dr Allen. ‘The team was established at a time when industry was looking to outsource their innovation function and we’ve been able to build on this growing interest.’

‘As a Division, we’ve had to learn new ways to interact with the commercial sector,’ she continues. ‘Listening to the particular needs and interests of companies rather than bombarding them with information about all our work for instance. And being prepared to have speculative conversations without knowing if anything will come of them. Senior managers and academics have seen the value of the approach and are really keen to engage.’

Over the last ten years, the team has brought in more than £100 million in industry funding, built and managed major, multi-year relationships with 14 companies, fostered a pipeline of more than 150 project development ideas, and provided dedicated management of industry research engagement for the NHS in Oxford. Other achievements include:

  • Further strengthening the longstanding partnership with Novo Nordisk which led to the new Novo Nordisk Oxford Research Centre being located on the University’s Old Road Campus.
  • Developing a successful fellowship programme with Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), which has supported over 28 fellows. Research emerging from this programme has been used to support an application to the US Food and Drug Administration for a new BMS drug.
  • A strategic alliance with Bayer HealthCare resulting in the development of new drug targets for gynaecological therapies, for which the company has licensed intellectual property.
  • An ‘Experts in Residence’ scheme matching industry experts with academic researchers to discuss early project ideas with no strings attached.
  • Establishment of four visiting industry professorships to underpin the further development of strategic partnerships.

 The team also has a dedicated staff member working on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), and developed new approaches to engaging with these companies. AIMTM Days, originally developed at Uppsala University, bring SMEs and academics together to explore questions raised by the companies including on regenerative medicine, biomedical imaging, antimicrobial resistance, and ageing.

‘Supporting the growth and resilience of SMEs is a focus of the government’s industrial strategy and these small companies can be very agile and innovative,’ says Dr Allen. ‘Helping them focus research and development efforts where they can be effective is particularly rewarding.’

Among many collaborations, the team is currently providing alliance management for the partnership with AstraZeneca on the new COVID-19 vaccine. Making such industry/university partnerships possible, and run smoothly, is vital in turning scientific ‘knowledge’ into new therapies and services – something Dr Allen refers to as ‘building the infrastructure for innovation and translation’.

‘Working with such a talented and dedicated team of people to turn knowledge into impact has fired my working life for the last ten years,’ says Dr Allen. ‘We’re now starting to adopt a more multi-disciplinary approach, and to work with other University Divisions and subject areas, and I’m excited to see how this can help us respond to the significant health challenges of the 21st century in coming years.’

Dr Maxine Allen is the Director of Business Partnerships in the Medical Sciences Division

Funders: Higher education Innovation Fund (institutional award), Research England, Proximity to Discovery funding, Medical Research Council, National Institutes for Health Research, Oxford Biomedical Research Centre Funding