When universities began, almost 1,000 years ago, they were communities of teachers and scholars. Research came some centuries later. Then, later still, came engagement with business, university spin-outs and training entrepreneurs.
These latter activities are of global importance, with universities, across all their disciplines, increasingly being recognised as drivers of regional and national economies. In the UK, people are starting to talk of “univercities” and, in the US, of universities as “anchor institutions”.
Working with companies allows academic discoveries to be translated into commercial and societal benefit. Indeed, universities are increasingly required to justify their research in these terms. This is fine provided it is not the main driver of research and its funding, and as long as universities continue to be supported to pursue the unfettered, blue-sky research that drives real advances in knowledge. Few other organisations are able to meet this important need.
Universities can benefit financially from commercialisation. Almost all now have technology transfer offices, with experts in protecting and exploiting intellectual property. They have professionally staffed business engagement functions to promote collaboration with a range of private sector organisations.
Universities are also an excellent source of start-up companies arising from their discoveries, driven by the staff and students who want to take those discoveries to market. Some bring income back to the university, while social enterprises bring benefits beyond profit. Failure rates of such innovative new businesses are inevitably high, but most create employment. Universities also provide excellent incubator space for companies large and small to work alongside academics and to use valuable facilities.
Training the next generation of entrepreneurs is an important role of universities, but they need a lot of help. Few academics are natural entrepreneurs, so most need business partners to develop their companies. For their part, students often need little more than a space, wi-fi and encouragement. But many benefit from the training that is now commonplace in universities, learning about things such as business models, pitching to investors and dealing with takeovers.
Some universities are embracing commercialisation more than others. The US is a recognised leader, with Europe often seen as trying to catch up. China is also investing heavily. Success depends to a considerable extent on government funding and recognition, university culture and the willingness of companies to work with higher education.
Industrial engagement is not without challenges. Income from universities’ discoveries and subsequent licensing or spin-outs can be lucrative, but this is rare and hard to predict. Last year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a recognised leader in this area, generated much less than 1 per cent of its overall income from the commercialisation of its discoveries. A better indicator of success is the value created by universities in the wider economy.
Concerns have been voiced that focusing on commercialisation drives research towards profit, rather than discovery. There are many examples of major patent disputes between universities. The legal debate around who first discovered the potentially lucrative CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology is raging in the US and threatening to overshadow the discovery’s huge scientific importance and potential societal benefit.
There is also a risk of conflict between the openness of research – the drive to publish quickly and make all data accessible – and the restrictions that may be needed for filing patents, or the commercial sensitivity of joint projects with companies.
Working with small to medium-sized enterprises presents particular challenges. In my home city of Manchester, there are more than 100,000 registered SMEs. Many will not wish to engage with a university. But even the 1,000 or so annual enquiries we receive on just one topic – graphene – present a massive challenge to answer, and demand a resource that most universities just don’t have.
Universities must grasp the opportunities of working with the commercial world, training our students to be the next generation of entrepreneurs and supporting staff who want to develop commercial enterprises. But they should do so with their eyes open. Turning great universities into second-rate companies – as one former head of research and development at a major multinational put it – would benefit no one.
Dame Nancy Rothwell is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester. She will speak at Times Higher Education’s Asia Universities Summit, at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on 19-21 June.