The UK’s limping knowledge transfer efforts need to leapfrog forward

Adapting and adopting US approaches to commercialisation offer an opportunity for the UK, says Chris Loryman

一月 16, 2022
A woman leapfrogs a bollard in London
Source: iStock

University technology transfer yields material economic returns from substantial taxpayer funding. As such, it represents an important part of an advanced economy. Yet while the UK has been talking about it forever, things seem no further forward than 10 years ago.

The UK never fully implemented technology transfer, certainly not at a national level. On a piecemeal basis, individual universities simply copied what they saw in the US – or, at least, what they thought they saw. Like many imitations, though, appearances are not enough. The inside workings matter.

The US’ success has its origins in the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities to retain ownership of the intellectual property they create. There are many valid criticisms of the act, but it has led to the creation of a framework – not often talked about, yet widely trusted – for the efficient conversion of university outputs into useful business assets and resources. The framework integrates all the relevant players and establishes common standards, including amended grant terms, updated university assessment measures, integrated programmes of funding, centres of excellence and new legal standards.

In comparison, the stark reality is that UK technology transfer is akin to a pre-industrial cottage industry. The country does have some high-performing institutions, but the technology transfer functionality at many otherwise excellent universities is often lacklustre. Fine work is being done by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and other entities, but their efforts are always going to struggle because of the disjointed ecosystem. Indeed, many of the challenges have already been identified in documents such as the 2008 Innovation Nation report and the 2019 UKRI Delivery Plan.

But there is a hidden opportunity here, which is to use “technology leapfrogging”. This is the delivery of modern technology in an area where the previous version has not yet been fully implemented. The UK can create a technology transfer framework based on the US experience but updated for the post-industrial era and tailored for the UK economy.

Five critical steps are required. The first is to implement a modern, US-style framework for technology commercialisation, with a particular emphasis on the formation of new companies (“start-ups”).

Second, template documents must be properly established. Based on familiar samples, these should be used by all universities, particularly in their interactions with businesses. There have been some attempts at this, but it has not been widely adopted. For those concerned about workability, the University of California is the world’s largest university system but uses a standard list of template documents, which are readily accepted by businesses. The venture capital funds who invest in university-derived start-ups also highly value them. Familiarity reduces risk, which increases investment.

Next, the UK needs rapid licensing of technologies to new start-ups or qualifying small businesses. This has been going on for some years in the peak-performing US institutions, with impressive outcomes.

Multi-tier funding is also required to support the early development of qualifying companies and to offer investment incentives. The UK is trying to replicate the US’ very successful SBIR programme, but it has not been able to reproduce the same level of success. The critical aspect is that the US SBIR functions in partnership with the technology transfer framework.

Finally, the UK must integrate governmental customers. No doubt the NHS has technical challenges that need creative solutions, for instance. If there is a tangible discovery that might address the need, why not streamline the commercial development process? Over at the Ministry of Defence, the ongoing debacle of the Ajax armoured vehicle programme suggests the army could potentially gain from having a role in moving technologies from the experimental stage into small companies, and then on to wider use.

None of this is mysterious. The success of such measures in the US suggests that adopting them will substantially increase the success of those UK efforts already under way. At a national level, leapfrogging into a modern technology transfer and development ecosystem appears to be an opportunity for Global Britain.

Chris Loryman is a senior innovation and commercialisation manager at the University of California, San Diego, and has previously managed intellectual property and technology transfer at several London universities.


Print headline: Time for a step change



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Reader's comments (1)

Far from “limping” UK university knowledge transfer is on a par with the best in the US and globally. Of the ten top universities globally for investment raised by their spin-outs five are UK universities and five US. The SETsquared five university partnership has been repeatedly ranked the top business incubator globally, helping 5,000 local entrepreneurs (and not just university entrepreneurs) raise £2.7Bn in investment, creating 20,000 jobs. UK universities generate as many spin-outs per £ of research income (2.1) as the US. Income from intellectual property licensing is 3.5% of total research income against 2.5% for the US while the percentage of research income from industry is 8.1% against 6.5% for the US. On standardisation we have had the Lambert Agreements since 2003 which most universities use as starting templates for agreements although there seems to be at least as much, if not more, variability between US universities as in the UK. And UK knowledge transfer office are in constant dialogue with their US colleagues. For example TenU - a collaboration of ten leading university knowledge transfer offices including Columbia, MIT, Stanford, KULeuven and six UK universities - hold regular webinars on topics in knowledge transfer and economic development with US and UK policymakers. TenU has also just completed the pilot of a Future Leaders programme with six US, one EU and four UK knowledge transfer offices. So while there is no complacency, the UK is performing at the highest international levels in knowledge transfer and should be celebrated as such rather than mischaracterised as a “limping” along cottage industry.