Let’s draw blue skies research out of our universities and into the economy
A great idea often starts with a lightbulb moment, a flash of inspiration that feels like it could be something big – but for many ideas that’s as far as it gets. For successful innovators, getting to the point where things really take off is a long and often winding road of hope, promise, disappointment and renewal.
Entrepreneurs who grow a good idea into a business are critical to our economic success, but entrepreneurs are not only born and raised in the business community. There are about 1,000 businesses in the UK that are run by university academics who have taken the plunge and are commercialising the research that they have invested years of their lives in.
These include companies such as 2D tech, which was spun out of Manchester University to find commercial applications for graphene, Run3D, an Oxford University spinout that uses biomechanical engineering to help sportspeople improve their performance, or Magnomatics from Sheffield University, which has developed a gearbox that doesn’t actually have any gears in it.
If we are to maintain our position as a world leader in innovation, the UK needs these research-led businesses to scale up, not sell up. As universities minister Jo Johnson recognised recently in a speech to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, our universities need to “find a new gear” and accelerate the adoption of the best practice on research commercialisation that already exists in some of our universities so that it becomes mainstream.
This view is backed up by statistics. Although patent applications in the UK have increased by around 150% over the last decade, most of that growth was in the first five years. While the number of businesses that are being spun out of our universities has been growing, the figures for those that are still operating after three years has been stagnant since 2009-10 and, on average, they have just four employees.
Poor commercialisation of UK research is a problem that Johnson has committed to solve through his new knowledge exchange framework. It will benchmark performance in university-business collaboration, with the aim of driving up standards and recognising that the strengths of different types of institution are not based solely on their work in research.
This should be welcomed, particularly by growing businesses that are faced with a wide choice of universities and which can struggle to identify the best partner. However, we need to make sure the framework takes a long-term view of investment and uses a measure of knowledge exchange that genuinely drives businesses to scale up and creates economic growth.
At the moment some university technology transfer offices are using funding models and measures of success that are just too short-term. We should not use a single measure, like the exploitation of intellectual property, simply because it is easier to quantify. Innovate UK will work with the government and Research England to make sure that the new framework looks to the long term, with a variety of measures that genuinely link through to growth and create the right incentives.
In particular, the framework must acknowledge that research that can transform our industries comes in many different forms, not just patents and IP. For instance, a great deal of work is already being done to develop artificial intelligence systems and algorithms that will analyse big datasets, but since you cannot patent an algorithm in the UK, using that as your indicator would be a flawed measure.
The framework will also need to drive knowledge from our universities into established businesses of all sizes to develop new products and services because this is just as important as support for new companies that are starting out.
That is where schemes like knowledge transfer partnerships can help. Run by Innovate UK, the research councils and devolved administrations, these transfer a graduate or more senior researcher into a business for between 12 and 36 months to deliver an innovation project identified by the business. This is a three-way partnership between the business, the university and the academic in which all benefit.
This week we received an additional £30 million from the national productivity investment fund to substantially expand the programme. When the framework is introduced, universities will be able to use schemes like these partnerships to demonstrate how they are commercialising research.
Knowledge transfer from our universities and the commercialisation of university research matters. So long as we get the measures and incentives right, the framework can bring benefits not just to the international reputation of our businesses and universities, but also to the wider economy.