Tensions in technology transfer need to be addressed

Stanford and MIT might be seen as stars, but the UK has good practice too, says Trevor McMillan

September 9, 2016
Five lightbulbs

The Higher Education Funding Council for England asked me some months ago to act as “champion” for the knowledge exchange (KE) performance framework, highlighted in the higher education White Paper. As part of this, I have chaired a group to look at good practice in technology transfer, which is an important, though very small, part of the overall picture of research impact in the UK.

A reason to start with technology transfer, for example through the formation of spin-out companies, is that it has often been a subject of heated debate in university-business links. Indeed, it has been part of government consultation over recent months in the drive towards policy development for innovation and an industrial strategy.

First of all, it is important to say that both the overall approach and performance of the UK higher education sector compare well with other parts of the world. There are clearly some institutions around the world, such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that are highly successful, but they exist in an external entrepreneurial and investment environment that allows them to exploit their intellectual property in very specific ways. However, it is clear that even in the US, these “stars” stand out and are not the norm.

The evidence demonstrates that there is no “one size fits all” approach that will optimise exploitation for every university in every place. Universities need to develop their own policies, reflective of their institutional capabilities and “ecosystems” – the characteristics of their surrounding conditions for entrepreneurship.

This environment can include support for new businesses, access to funds, availability of facilities and the absorption capacity of existing businesses.

There is, therefore, a critical role for university senior management in clearly defining their approach to technology transfer in such a way that both external partners and their own staff understand the rationales, aims and ambitions. Where specific aspects of technology transfer are a stated aim for the university, senior leadership teams need to show long-term commitment and put in place the right policies for their particular institution and context.

University staff need to know what they might be expected to do and what support is available. External partners need to be confident in the university approach. For example, it is important to be clear about:

  • Reward and recognition policies – for both academics and professional units. This includes outlining the way that equity stakes in spin-out companies will be considered
  • Attitudes to the governance of technology transfer in the context of charity and European Commission state aid regulations, which both have implications for how universities work with the private sector and support entrepreneurship
  • A recognition that technology transfer, rather than a reliable generator of additional revenue to universities, can be a cost. The benefits of technology transfer are more than simple direct finance, and university leaders are committed to the UK government’s impact agenda, but costs of impact pathways are rarely met fully by external beneficiaries. A judgement needs to be made across the institutional impact portfolio overall on balances of external benefits and cost recovery, making knowledge exchange sustainable alongside high-quality teaching and research.

Universities rely on professional staff, sometimes in technology transfer offices, to provide advice to manage the range of unusual and potentially contentious risks present in technology transfer. Such staff often find themselves at the centre of very difficult discussions in which the participants have quite different agendas.

For example, the levels of financial and reputational risk that different participants consider acceptable can vary. Again, clarity of purpose will help such discussions, as will the continued development of the UK technology transfer professional community in part through good practice materials from the UK Intellectual Property Office and the professional association, Praxisunico.

Universities are probably the most IP-based businesses in the economy. Intellectual property rights are important to universities to protect freedoms to research and teach.

Universities do not, and should not, duck our very strong responsibility to make IP available for exploitation if that is in the public interest, and to work with wealth creators in that process. But we need to recognise that intellectual property matters to the business of a world-class university system and that, at the very least, the costs of technology transfer need to be covered.

Trevor McMillan is vice-chancellor of Keele University.

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