The UK Government has asked the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline to help foster innovative relationships between business and universities.

In a move that underlines the importance of Sir Andrew Witty [pictured] and GSK - Britain’s biggest pharma firm - to the UK economy, the government is asking Witty to provide “practical steps” for building stronger relationships between universities, local companies and regional growth bodies.

It is hoped this will help address the traditionally high failure rates of British academia to commercialise its research by cultivating closer links with local industry.

GSK already has a number of R&D deals in place with universities in the UK, including partnerships with Cambridge University to look for cures for liver disease, and with Dundee University for tropical diseases research.

University and science minister David Willetts, said: “It is critical to the government’s industrial strategy that universities play a full role in driving growth at a local level and then taking it on to a national and global scale.

“A strong relationship between businesses and universities can provide real growth opportunities in local areas. By forging links and sharing best practice, an efficient and practical partnership will help to boost the economy, benefiting both businesses and institutions.”

Sir Andrew added: “It is vitally important that the world-leading capabilities in our universities and research base are at the heart of both the industrial strategy and local growth strategies that recognise and build on areas of local strength.”

He will report back to the Government later this year with his recommendations.

Research from 2012 suggests that academics are already getting better at spotting commercially promising innovations and creating spin-out businesses based on their research. Some 3,118 new businesses emerged from universities in 2011, up from 2,457 in the previous year – but the government still wants to see more.

It said that Sir Andrew would: “Identify where we have world-leading capabilities in our research base that can underpin the sectors and technologies of the industrial strategy”.

He is also due to analyse whether universities are “being effective” as providers of skilled workers to companies and as partners in local supply chains.

‘More needs to be done’

Ana Nicholls, pharma and healthcare analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said that while firms such as GSK and AstraZeneca have established ties with academia in the UK, more still needs to be done.

“The UK has some of the world’s best universities and researchers, but sometimes fails to benefit commercially from their findings,” she argues. “[Sir Andrew’s] experience in the pharma industry should benefit smaller companies or those in other industries - such as the auto, engineering, technology industries - that may be less experienced in developing such ties.”

She adds that there are also question-marks over the funding available to put his ideas into practice, given the on-going budget cuts to universities and other schemes such as the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, which itself is looking to create more links between industry and academia.