‘Many companies, especially SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), don’t have their own extensive research operations,’ explains Kent’s Professor Michael Fairhurst. ‘This means that they are often interested in linking up with universities like ours, where they can benefit from our research capabilities.’
His own research into biometrics, within the School of Engineering and Digital Arts, looks at the identification of individuals from their unique physiological features such as the iris of the eye, or characteristic behavioural patterns such as handwriting, especially the handwritten signature. This ground-breaking work is now used in many applications, such as banking and airport security, as well as National ID card programmes.
‘Collaborations with industry develop over time,’ says Fairhurst. ‘Anyone working in research does a lot of networking, and sometimes the work we are doing at Kent is a natural fit with what a company wants to achieve. Such discussions may be the start of a more specific collaboration further down the line.’
One way into a collaborative partnership is via an industrial studentship, where a PhD student investigates new areas of research in partnership with a commercial company. The PhD student would usually work as part of a specialist team at Kent, supervised by an experienced academic.
As Fairhurst explains: ‘We’d usually begin by discussing a wish-list with the company; the things that they would like to know more about. From this, we can formulate a project specification that addresses as much of that wish-list as possible, while retaining the cohesion and overall narrative that’s needed for a successful PhD.’
The challenges and opportunities that come up during a PhD programme mean that collaboration is always part of the process. The company and the University have an ongoing interactive relationship that is always crucial to the project’s success.
‘With any PhD project, when you start doing the research the findings can change the direction of the project,’ says Fairhurst. ‘You can hit a dead end with one line of enquiry, while something else comes along that is remarkably promising. During this time, we work with the company to get feedback and help in prioritising certain strands of investigation.’
As a project nears completion, the different emphases and priorities within the collaboration are still a very important part of the process.
‘Academics are judged to a large degree by the research they publish,’ Fairhurst explains. ‘Their natural inclination is to publish their findings as soon as they can. But obviously that’s less of a priority for a company, which is more concerned to stay ahead of its competitors, and anyway may not wish to reveal too much about their research and development activities. So it is always important, whenever we do anything involving publicity or publication, to ensure that it has the prior approval and backing of the company.’
‘There is no doubt, however, that this type of collaboration is good for the student, for the University and for the sponsoring company, while also improving the chances of practical take-up as the reward for a lot of hard work.’