Belfast Telegraph

Sharing the knowledge and the rewards

An awards ceremony will this week recognise the success of a partnership between businesses and education

By Clare Weir

This week one of the most innovative link-ups between education providers and businesses in Northern Ireland and across the wider UK is to be recognised at a special event.

The Northern Ireland Knowledge Transfer Partnership Awards will take place at Queen’s University on Thursday evening, to celebrate the success of knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) over the past year.

This will follow a one-day conference — the first of its kind — aiming to showcase the business benefits of the scheme.

A KTP is a partnership between higher education providers and businesses, where a graduate enters a firm to work on a pre-arranged design or research project.

Supporters say that in Northern Ireland, in particular, KTPs can bring immense benefits to small to medium sized enterprises and can help graduates on their way to a career in their chosen field at a time when jobs are still thin on the ground.

Mary Flynn, head of the Knowledge Transfer Centre at Queen’s, said the mutual benefits of KTPs are obvious.

“The KTPs are UK-wide and operate allow businesses access to the ‘knowledge base’ of universities, colleges and other further education providers,” she said. “These strategic projects are usually two years in duration but can go on for longer. There are 1,300 partnerships across the UK and here in Northern Ireland we have 70 — we punch well about our target weight considering how small we are as a country.

“The scheme has been operational since 1975 in various guises and while it was initially only open to universities, five years ago, it was opened to the further and higher education providers, of which there are 27 in Northern Ireland.

“These partnerships cover all sectors, all types of businesses, all types of areas of expertise.

“While it is obvious that there would be attractions for larger companies, particularly in Northern Ireland, we think it is important to make sure that small and medium-sized businesses are involved and can access the benefits provided by the partnerships.

“It isn’t a job scheme, per se, as we can’t guarantee anyone will walk straight into a job.

“However every graduate does get a qualification and a managerial diploma upon completion and many have gone on to be business leaders.

“There have been many, many success stories where graduates have gone onto the scheme, have done well, either stayed at the company or moved on to another company and have come back to us looking for more graduates.”

Dr Grace McGroggan is one such graduate.

The 31-year old graduated from Queen’s in 2006 with a PhD in chemical engineering.

Dr McGroggan took part in a three-year project with TG Eakin Limited, a healthcare company, aimed at developing a new type of surgical adhesive.

TG Eakin was formed in 1974 by Tom Eakin, a pharmacist. It manufactures and supplies skin protection products for use in stoma and wound care.

In 2007, during Dr McGroggan’s project, TG Eakin Limited acquired Pelican Healthcare, a UK supplier and manufacturer of specialist stoma and feminine health products, giving opportunities for more research and design work, and she now works with TG Eakin as a research supervisor.

“My project was conducted in conjunction with the school of pharmacy at Queen’s.

“I really enjoyed my time at TG Eakin developing the new product and in 2009 I became a full time employee,” she said.

“I was also involved in sourcing a new graduate from the KTP who is now working with us here at TG Eakin on formulating more new products.

“For a long time TG Eakin was manufacturing and supplying one product but in the seven to eight years has started branching out and innovating and I think the support from Queen’s though the KTPs has really helped with that.

“KTPs are fantastic for businesses and graduates alike. It’s a win-win situation for everyone in terms of funding and access to learning material, conferences, events and personal development opportunities.

“For me personally it was a great place to start off in my career as then, and even now, it can be hard for women to get into engineering jobs in Northern Ireland.”

One of the biggest success stories has been the link-up with Macrete, a Co Antrim concrete company which won last year’s KTP of the Year Award as well as two other accolades.

The firm worked with the school of planning, architecture and civil engineering to develop a new ‘flat pack’ concrete arch, used to build bridges.

The associate who worked with them, Abhey Gupta (32) is one of the 73% in Northern Ireland who, like Dr McGroggan have secured full time jobs through KTPs.

Macrete is one of the few remaining independent precast concrete manufacturers in the United Kingdom and Ireland and has been well established for over three decades.

As well as securing the KTP of |the Year award, the project in which Mr Gupta worked also secured |a Royal Academy of Engineering 2009 engineering excellence |award and a Construct Award for innovation and best practice in 2009.

Additionally, Abhey himself scooped a ‘business leader of the future’ accolade.

“I first got involved in the KTPs six years ago after completing my masters,” he said.

“I went to Macrete and was tasked to co-ordinate the design of a new arch for the company.

“After two years the project was completed and was a big success which won the company three awards. But this wasn’t just a college project.

“We had designed and created a product and we had to market and sell it. We have since sold 24 arches across the UK, to roads and highways agencies and to private buyers.

“Four have recently gone to Scotland.

“There have been knock on benefits. As well as the arch, we have designed equipment that can be used

to help fit the arches. I have been lucky enough to secure a job through the KTP and we have also hired a business development manager in Derbyshire to help strengthen our contacts and customer base on the mainland.

“In May 2010 we took on another associate graduate through the KTP to help us develop the system further.”

He said that while some graduates may be tempted by instant employment and feel forced to leave Northern Ireland in search of jobs, KTPs can offer more opportunity in the long run. “KTPs are a real stepping stone to the future,” he said. “The initial salary may put some people off, but you have to remember, that extra couple of thousand pounds you might get going straight into a job could be deceiving.

“What is offered in terms of personal and professional development, which will help and assist in your future career, would far outweigh that, for me personally.

“The KTPs explore all aspects of development, it allows you to adapt and to travel and get far more input from industry leaders than you would in an ordinary job.

“For me, there is no contest.”

Belfast Telegraph