Compete or collaborate: why not do both?

Dr Danielle Miles is the Programme Lead and Technology Innovation Manager for Grow MedTech based at the University of Leeds. In this article, she outlines how we combined competition and collaboration to build a successful programme.

Competition and collaboration could be seen as mutually exclusive. At Grow MedTech, we’ve managed to create a culture that combines the two – and we’ve been more effective as a result.

Multi-partner programmes like Grow MedTech are founded on collaboration, they can’t function without it. Collaboration was built into the programme from the start; the bid itself was co-developed by partners. Although all six institutions involved are very different, the strength of the programme is because together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

That doesn’t mean that competition can’t exist as well and we’d be naïve to think it doesn’t. Although some see competition as a negative force, in reality the friendly form of competition we’ve developed within Grow MedTech has been no bad thing. In fact, I believe it’s helped us to drive forward better technologies.

This combination of competition and collaboration significantly influenced how we managed the programme.

Friendly competition

One good example is around funding. The funding we had to support technology development could simply have been split six ways, letting each university use it as they wished to support the projects they chose. But all partners agreed from the start – in a collaborative spirit! – that we would allocate the funding through competitive calls, using a robust and transparent process.

We created our Opportunity Management Panel (or OMP) to make funding decisions. The OMP is itself a collaboration between academia and industry: it includes knowledge exchange representatives from each of the partners along with external medtech expertise from industry and innovation organisations.

Developing the applications for funding involved collaboration – between the Technology Innovation Manager (TIMs) and the project teams, and between the TIMs themselves. But the fact the process was competitive definitely drove improvement in the applications.

I’m both a TIM and the Programme lead, and with the latter hat on, it was interesting to see how the TIMs became embedded in the project teams they worked with. It was also fascinating to watch the healthy competition that would develop as they so passionately wanted the projects they worked with to be successful in the funding bid. The TIMs themselves have to champion each project to the OMP so it was in their interests to be sure the application was as good as it could be. This was where the competition helped – no one wanted to sign off a weak application as they knew they’d have to defend it.

Shared outcomes

This drive for success was never because the TIMs wanted a project to be funded simply because of the institution it came from. It was from a genuine belief in the project and because they wanted the maximum number of the most promising technologies funded, for the overall programme to be a success.

Because we all work together as a team rather than just for the institution in which we’re based, we also supported each other in developing bids. Each TIM has slightly different areas of expertise, and each project benefited from that, with each TIM providing recommendations and suggestions on the others’ applications.

Although the funding calls were competitive, it wasn’t an ‘all or nothing’ outcome for the projects that applied. No one went away empty handed, because the OMP always gave extensive feedback, so the project team would learn about the gaps in their application and how to address them. This meant the door was never shut – if in scope, projects could always reapply once they’d addressed the OMP feedback. In fact, it was rare that successful bids came without recommendations or conditions. This feedback from the OMP, together with the support provided by the TIMs, was easily as valuable to the projects as the funding itself.

Positive feedback

The OMP feedback was also crucial for the TIMs. As they presented the project to the panel, they also listened to the subsequent discussion and fully understood why a decision had been made. This meant they could then talk it through with the project team and knew what to do next. It also meant that the TIMs developed an understanding of what a really good application looked like. So, as the programme progressed, applications became stronger and stronger as a result.

And that’s the bottom line. It’s always been about supporting the best technologies and ensuring the best use of the resources we have. The competition means we strive for the best, and the collaboration means we share the success. The better the technologies, the more they can benefit from the opportunities Grow MedTech provided, the better for the programme as a whole. And that’s good news for everyone.