The University of Bristol’s Translational Research Hubs are particularly notable for embedding innovation and entrepreneurship into core disciplines and as models of good practice from which other institutions can learn.
Please provide a brief description of the KE project/ case study and why you believe it is considered good practice or innovative (and for whom). What challenge were you trying to achieve?
Bristol’s first Translational Research Hub is largely built around biomedical research, working with researchers in this area to develop their fundamental research findings into new medical interventions such as drugs and diagnostics. We’ve since replicated this activity in social sciences and law. Both Hubs were set up to focus effort in places where we were either seeing a lot of or not seeing enough translational R&D occurring where there was huge potential, and this needed dedicated expert support.
From about 2010 onwards, we have wanted to do more translational research. The Wellcome Trust became interested in this space and through a combination of us securing a Wellcome Trust Translational Partnership Award (TPA) and using UKRI impact acceleration account funding this allowed us to kick it off. It was also important that the Dean was a strong advocate for this initiative, which gave it credibility with researchers. We have recruited a team of people with industry and translation experience and brought in Royal Society Entrepreneurs in Residence who can advise academics based on their own experience developing and commercialising technologies. We managed to get 150 academics, early career researchers and PhD students involved in our Biomedical Hub and now there is growing activity around commercialisation, including spinouts.
Each Hub includes a significant training element in translational skills and entrepreneurship. Within the Biomedical Hub, we targeted 40 early career researchers and 50 PhD students early on. We also reached out to more established PIs to offer 1:1 advice . We also developed a mentoring programme and a number of collaborative fellowships so that people could spend time outside of academia.
Where did the idea for the project/ programme come from? Was this related to a strategic objective? How did you secure senior buy in?
A core element of the University of Bristol’s 2030 Strategy is “World-leading Research and Innovation with Global Impact”. Our Knowledge Exchange plan includes a plan to grow enterprise activities and we have invested in Bristol Innovations. Ideally, several translational research hubs will exist, aligned to strategic investments; for example, the University of Bristol is investing in a significant Enterprise Campus at Temple Meads which will further expand our Engineering and Social Sciences capability.
What impact/ outcome has this project/ activity had on your university? Students? Local economy? Staff? Other external parties, e.g. businesses.
The relevance and conversation around these Hubs has improved and become easier, leading to more business engagement and collaborative research. Bristol Innovations represents our overall aspiration to invest in translational research and Biomedical research is a key strength within UoB.
There’s a general sense that there needs to be a shift across the piece. In rolling the Hub model out to social sciences and law, we started to call more people towards translational research, recognising that the REF and the external funding environment is helping to move that cultural shift towards impact and translation.
Bristol from quite a cold start is quickly developing as a hot spot for biotech. We are now fifth in the country for biotech investments and we’d like to think this is related. University of Bristol spinout Ziylo, which created a new technology with potential to treat diabetes more effectively was bought by global healthcare company Novo Nordisk in a deal which could be worth around $800 million and the founder is starting to invest in other startups and spinouts.
How did you measure impact?
Historically, the HEBCI metrics have been important, e.g., collaborative R&D income, the number of disclosures and licenses as well as total R&D income and number of spinouts created. We also count the numbers of researchers engaging with us in translational projects. Translation can be a long process and ultimately we want to see impact from new products- for example in the biomedical space, new medicines which improve people’s lives.
What types of resources were required to implement this project?
Following on from the success of the Wellcome funding we have used our HEIF allocation to retain and expand staffing for the Biomedical Hub to 4, embedding a new function into business as usual . It has been seen as successful within the university in providing the support and expertise to progress translational projects. The Biomedical Hub has been catalytic in combination with 1-2 other activities.
What are the governance structures in place to oversee it?
The relevant Dean acts as Executive Sponsor for each Hub, meeting regularly with all those involved. There is a board/ group which regularly reviews activities.
Describe any challenges that you have had to overcome either before, during or after implementing this project?
We have had to tackle how we embed a culture of translational research in areas where people haven’t done it before.
The second related challenge is how we persuade academics of the value of translating their research and to invest their time in translation activities, in particular training. To address this , two years ago we included an explicit set of essential requirements around engagement and impact into our promotion criteria. We do have a workload model where this work is occasionally captured and at other times falls within the research bucket.
What advice would you give others in trying to engage with hard-to-reach groups? Have you considered EDI within your strategy?
Through the SETSquared incubator we run specific programmes and accelerator activities for under-represented groups, including leadership and enterprise initiatives for female founders and tech founders from minority ethnic backgrounds . These have been very transformational in terms of increasing the number and diversity of founders.
For our internal translational funding schemes, we build inclusivity and diversity in our governance and management structures, including embedding equitable peer review in our Funding Panels. We monitor the diversity of award holders we are supporting and address inclusion and diversity during the development of partnerships and projects. We have designed secondments and challenge-led workshops to be open and flexible for part-time and virtual working.
We have definite ambitions for growth of our Translational Hubs and development of the suite of services they offer; this in turn will allow us to support the translation of more research, but we need to find new sources of funding for this.
Exploiting the upskilling angle is also critical for us. Training up early career researchers allows us to help others when they are more senior to embed this in five years’ time.