GW4 celebrates five years of collaboration and innovation

October 7, 2019
Professor Kim Graham

GW4 celebrates its five-year anniversary this year, which provides Professor Kim Graham, GW4’s Board Chair and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Enterprise at Cardiff University, an excellent opportunity to review the successes of the Alliance to date and its future ambitions.

Since joining GW4 as Chair of the Board in September 2018 I have really enjoyed working with colleagues across the Alliance to champion research and innovation in our region. This is an exciting time for GW4, with considerable opportunity and proven success in obtaining large-scale investment supporting delivery of innovative cross-institutional programmes which have the potential to be world-leading.

The GW4 Alliance brings together four of the most research-intensive and innovative universities in the UK: Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter. The Alliance allows us to identify areas of complementary expertise across the universities and develop research communities at scale able to address major global and industrial challenges.

GW4 has seven research foundations, based on our regional strengths and expertise. These are Aerospace and Advanced Engineering; New Energy Systems; Next Generation Microelectronics; Resilience, Environment and Sustainability; Creative and Cultural Economy; Living Well; and Digital Innovation.

GW4 has seen major successes in each of these areas and is able to draw on previous successful initiatives and existing partnerships as well as developing new collaborations to engage with the Government’s Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges.

For example, in the industrial challenge area, Future of Mobility, the Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS) is set to open in 2020 and will be a new research and innovation facility based at the Bristol and Bath Science Park. In the Ageing Society challenge area, GW4 benefited from two large MRC Dementia Institute Momentum Awards, to Bristol and Cardiff, with a further £20m funding into the Dementia Research Institute Centre at Cardiff University.  Funding from Alzheimer’s Society to Exeter, also involving Cardiff, on living well with dementia further cements our regions considerable strength in aging research.

Our region’s creative industries are also going from strength to strength, receiving two Creative Clusters awards for Cardiff and Bath/Bristol, with the universities working with a range of partners across the South West. More recently Channel 4 also announced Bristol as one of their creative hub locations, enabling them to work closely in partnership with Cardiff and its production sector, further cementing our region’s creative research and development potential.

This demonstrates how our universities are important drivers of regional economic growth and innovation in the Great West region. The strength and scale of our network is such that we can mobilise businesses, industry, government and third sector organisations, acting as a regional connector to deliver sustained investment via a coordinated response to the Industrial Strategy.

For example, Cardiff University’s partnership with microelectronics manufacturer IQE, formed the basis of the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster, CSconnected. Compound semiconductors are the technology of the future, and this foundational investment is now helping the region engage in other industrial challenge areas, such as the ‘driving the electric revolution’ challenge. The economic importance of this sector was highlighted in The South West England and South East Wales Science and Innovation Audit (SWW-SIA). The Audit was undertaken by UK government and a consortium of organisations and businesses from the region including GW4. The SWW-SIA also found that our region is home to the strongest aerospace sector in the UK, the most productive digital economy in the UK outside London and has more climate expertise than any other area worldwide. The latter includes the Met Office headquarters located in Exeter, and the Water Research Institute at Cardiff University. Further realising the opportunities identified in the Audit, Research England recently announced funding for the £100 million Bristol Digital Futures Institute at the University of Bristol and The Centre for Resilience in Environment, Water and Waste at the University of Exeter. These research centres will be at the forefront of developing innovative solutions that benefit the environment, global societies and the economy. The Bristol Digital Futures Institute based at the University of Bristol’s new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus will bring together researchers from different disciplines to create new approaches to digital innovation and social change, placing people and society at the heart of innovation. The Centre for Resilience in Environment, Water and Waste – a joint venture between the University of Exeter and South West Water – will conduct world-leading research into the provision of safe and resilient water services in the UK and overseas.

GW4 is committed to developing new and exciting collaborations. In February we announced funding for 12 new collaborative research communities bringing GW4’s investment in research communities to over £2.8m, realising a return on investment of over £12 for every £1 spent. The GW4 Board has also approved significant funding to the GW4 Water Security Alliance, one of the largest collaborative water security research endeavours in Europe. This demonstrates GW4’s aim to further develop research at scale leveraging our considerable research capabilities and external partnerships to make a real difference to society.

One of our previously funded GW4 research communities led to the development of VSimulators, a world class national research facility at the universities of Bath and Exeter. VSimulators provides a unique capability to physically and virtually recreate different environments, such as tall buildings, offices and stadiums to measure the impact of motion on people’s health and well-being.The GW4 community aimed to change the way that structures are designed and operated within the built environment and included researchers from across the Alliance. The community received GW4 funding, and support to catalyse the project and scale up their research. This led to a £4.8 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grant along with significant co-creation funds from the universities of Exeter and Bath, to bring total funding to £7.2 million.

In the most recent funding round of GW4 Building Communities, I was delighted to see a strong level of interest from our early career researchers, demonstrating their engagement in working across the region from early on in their academic careers. The sustainability of GW4 will be delivered by these future leaders, in whom collaboration comes naturally, going beyond traditional disciplines, institutions, and even in GW4’s case, countries. Our GW4 Crucible programme provides hands-on training and mentoring to help develop these collaborative research leaders of the future. This year’s theme was digital innovation – a broad topic and one ripe for interdisciplinary research, so very fitting as a GW4 Crucible topic. Digital Innovation is one of GW4’s priority areas as outlined in our Vision and at the heart of the UK government’s industrial strategy. As a group of universities and a region, we take a leading role in developing digital technologies including our deep-tech digital excellence in microelectronics, high value design, quantum engineering, cyber security and virtual and augmented reality. And it is core to many of the universities exciting developments, from Bristol’s new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus and the University of Bath’s Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS).

Finally, the successes of GW4 would be incomplete without mentioning our highly-sought after PhD training programmes. Our programmes are highly collaborative, involving a range of academic and non-academic partners. For example, the AHRC South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership is a consortium of nine universities and other organisations, including museums, providing postgraduate studentships and training to develop talent and creativity. The GW4 Alliance recently received more EPSRC funded Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) than any other regional alliance, despite other consortiums consisting of more universities. These include a new CDT in Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems at the University of Bath where students will have the opportunity to develop invaluable skills through intensive research projects within its new £60 million automotive propulsion research facility, IAAPS. At Cardiff University a new CDT in Compound Semiconductor Manufacturing will provide excellent PhD training aligned with the needs of the UK industry. This CDT is a partnership of four universities and 24 companies, many already working closely together via the EPSRC Future CS Manufacturing Hub, based at Cardiff University. The University of Bristol received funding from EPSRC for nine CDTs – the highest number awarded to any university in the country. These centres will train and equip our talented engineering and science students with the skills needed to tackle global challenges such as sustainable energy and cyber security. GW4 universities also received funding for CDTs in Artificial Intelligence, including the University of Exeter’s new centre which will lead pioneering research into using AI to increase society’s resilience to changes in our environment.

GW4 has much to celebrate as it reaches its fifth birthday, and as universities we should be proud of what we have achieved in such a short time. This success has been delivered by a small core team, with representatives at each university leading on different GW4 themes, including sharing research infrastructure; building capacity and developing people; communications and connectivity; and building communities.

The ability, passion and innovation of this team has been truly impressive; they have brought together researchers to work collaboratively, showcased the very best of our region, and developed GW4 into a world-leading research and innovation hub across our seven Foundation areas. What an extraordinary start; if this is what we can achieve, together, in only five years, you might want to hold onto your hat for the future!