How to make new discoveries a commercial success

Universities need to invest in the right people to make the leap from intellectual property to covetable product, says George Feiger

March 31, 2016
Elly Walton illustration (31 March 2016)
Source: Elly Walton

It is commonplace to claim that competing demands on UK academics’ time are reducing their interest in commercialising their research. According to a recent survey by the National Centre for Universities and Business, reported in Times Higher Education, 14 per cent of UK academics reported commercialising their research in the period 2012-15, compared with 22 per cent in 2005-08 (“Big drop in academics commercialising their research”, News, 25 February).

Factors cited were universities’ increased focus on success in publication as a promotion criterion, increasing internal bureaucracy related to applying research in industry, and the renewed, politically driven focus on teaching. I would suggest that a more relevant and long-lasting driver is the limited success UK researchers – in common with those in many other countries – have had in commercialisation, particularly in comparison with US universities of comparable quality.

Why is this? The overriding reason is that, however much they are cajoled by impact managers to do so, successful researchers the world over tend to be very ill-suited to commercialising the intellectual fruits of their labours. Unless this is recognised and compensated for, nothing will change.

Talented researchers relentlessly pursue the new and the different. They are drawn to novel challenges in the hope of gaining fresh insights. Commercialisation, in contrast, requires painstaking effort to make innovations standard and reliable so that they can be put into a production process. Academics speedily lose interest in this, leaving their potential moneyspinners to perish in the fabled “valley of death” between discovery and commercial production.

There is a long and winding path through that valley. Very often there are a number of ways in which the intellectual innovation might be expressed commercially, and choices have to be made about which of these ways to pursue. The right choice depends on a combination of production feasibility and potential market demand. But researchers are very unlikely to be experienced production engineers or savvy marketers for new products and applications, so they will miss or misjudge the most favourable direction of travel.

The harsh reality that academics often fail to grasp is that inventing a better mousetrap does not mean that the world will instantly beat a path to your door. New ideas need to be very actively marketed to all sorts of entities through all sorts of channels. To be financed, they must appear in front of venture investors who are comfortable with the particular field of endeavour and who have the capacity to support what is being proposed. To even get these people to listen requires deep knowledge of the commercial world and relies on intermediaries to open doors. Academics – and universities generally, for that matter – tend not to have such connections. Nor is the situation helped by the fact that in some Western countries, including the UK, there remains a certain contempt for commerce in institutions of higher learning.

But successful commercialisation is by no means a lost cause. The obstacles can be overcome if two groups of people are brought in. The first is what I would call “translation intermediaries”. These are people with commercial smarts and operating backgrounds, who have personally started or run businesses that have depended on the application of intellectual innovation. Their first task is to ramble around the university, to get to know the nature of the research going on and devise commercialisation paths that are likely to pay off. It is also very important for them to empathise with researchers, enabling them to nudge them down the path towards creating something that is standard and reliable at least far enough that business management and production management from outside can be hired to complete the job.

Such intermediaries can be found – and successful universities have them on staff already. What is in it for them? As well as a decent, stable and secure salary, they also have the chance to acquire equity in a very valuable business.

But they are not enough. Universities also need to establish a network of “connected people”, to whom the business managers can turn to open doors and help find funding and potential production and marketing channels. The obvious candidates for membership of this group are commercially successful alumni.

UK universities are not alone in being reluctant to put on their payrolls expensive people who aren’t doing research or teaching. And, for the most part, they are not nearly as good at building active alumni engagement as US institutions. But, impact agenda or no impact agenda, until both of these factors change we can anticipate an ongoing spotty performance in the commercialisation of intellectual property.

George Feiger is pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of Aston Business School.

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Print headline: Don’t leave potential moneyspinners in the ‘valley of death’

Reader's comments (2)

Not enough UK SMEs are involved in R&D, also university contacts other than training support through teaching programmes seems relatively weak. Reconfiguration of the Hefce and the Research Coluncils budget towards more funding for the Doctoral training programme spread widely across the HEI, might help improved research collaboration.
In my experience, in conducting proof of concept research for many spin-outs and potential spin-outs, there is often a tendency to focus upon developing the product in advance of developing a thorough understanding of the market need. Research among potential customers is then left too late for changes to be made to product features and benefits before funding runs out. Keeping in touch with the marketplace during the early stages of product development - and carrying out customer research early - would save many commercialisation opportunities from going to waste.

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