Going for Growth

Why big business and colleges are teaming up

Anmar Frangoul | Special to CNBC.com

The research conducted at universities has led to some of the greatest medical, scientific and technological advances, from the first intravenous chemotherapy patient at Yale to the discovery of the structure of DNA at Oxford. Yet, these discoveries have also given the world a considerable economic boost.

According to a study published in 2014 by Universities UK, the U.K. higher education sector generated over £73 billion of output in 2011-12.

Many of Europe's universities and companies are teaming up to bolster research and increase funding. One such partnership is that between British pharmaceutical giant GSK and the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.

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In 2009 Strathclyde and GSK entered into a relationship that enables the development of what the university describes on its website as a, "bespoke framework for collaborative research degree programs."

The relationship enables GSK's researchers to conduct work-based research projects at the University of Strathclyde with the eventual goal of earning MPhils and PhDs.

Professor William Kerr is director of the program, overseeing its expansion over the last few years. "We started off quite small, really rather modestly," he told CNBC in a phone interview.

"We looked at MPhil degrees because we were wanting to assure ourselves that the people within the GSK labs had the appetite for working towards a higher research degree based on their work based projects," he added.

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Kerr went on to say that the program rapidly expanded to cover a range of subjects. "Within a year we moved it to PhD level because the quality of the science and the people was at that level … then we started moving sideways into other disciplines: process research, computational chemistry, drug metabolism."

Charlotte Hardy is a GSK employee and was recently named Young Industrialist of the Year by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The award was recognition of her "significant" contribution to the discovery of, "three clinical candidates as potential medicines for the treatment of distressing conditions such as Huntingdon's disease, asthma, allergic rhinitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease."

Hardy earned a PhD through the program, which she described as a "great opportunity… there weren't any reasons not to do it, because the company were basically sponsoring you to get a further educational qualification whilst working full time in your job."

The academic rigour of the course was a key benefit for Hardy. "Intellectually, it's just a really good exercise to go through, because you get peer review from somebody who's completely outside of GSK," she said.

Hardy went on to say that this knowledge exchange between academics and those working in industry was a two-way street. "I think supervisors have had that interaction as well, and I think it's encouraged a culture of increased scientific rigour within the work that we do," she said.

Strathclyde has benefitted from the program both academically and in terms of funding. Between 2012 and 2014 around £3 million ($4.6 million) helped to fund 42 PhD "studentships," with 24 students based at GSK-Stevenage, and 18 students based at Strathclyde.

A doctoral training center has also been set up as a result of the program's success.

It is this culture of collaboration that has been key to the program's success, according to Kerr. "The beautiful part of this model is that the students based in GSK come on a three- to six-month secondment to Strathclyde and the students based in Strathclyde do the same… (at) GSK," he said.

"They get that training… (from) both sides, they see the research in both domains and they learn the different things required," he added