There seems to be a much more healthy ongoing relationship in California between entrepreneurs and their alma maters
The fact that new universities and science minister Greg Clark has retained his previous responsibility for cities and regional growth has been interpreted as further evidence of the government’s conviction that universities can be an engine for economic growth.
But a trip this summer to California with a UK robotics delegation led by David Willetts, Clark’s predecessor, convinced me that UK universities still have a long way to go to get that engine firing on all cylinders.
It is undisputed that UK science is world leading, but it is also a fact that Silicon Valley is generally more successful at commercialising the ideas and inventions created in Californian universities.
During a round-table discussion at the University of California San Diego, we learned that part of the reason is that there is a consistent approach in California to the handling of intellectual property, copyrights and patents created by students and researchers. And although Californian universities hold on to IP rights, they are obliged to make efforts to commercialise and protect them and, importantly, must share 35 per cent of the revenues with their inventor.
But it is not just about the IP rights culture. The team that created the technology is also expected to be instrumental in forming the company to exploit it, so that the expertise is maintained in the enterprise. And these companies can be very successful; start-ups from the University of California Berkeley alone raised more than $1.3 billion (£770 million) in private capital in the five years up to 2011.
Plenty of the leading enterprises we visited during the mission were started by teams that first connected in academic institutions. There were many references in their presentations to the lessons learned and inspiration received during their early years – as well as to information gleaned more recently from the academy. There does seem to be a much more healthy ongoing relationship in California between entrepreneurs and their alma maters.
In addition, Californian university spin-offs seem to thrive on cross-licensing their IP to each other, sharing and building on each other’s ideas and research. There is a culture of getting ideas commercialised quickly by using design-thinking right from the market-scoping stage of the development process, rather than seeing it as a packaging exercise for slightly clunky engineering solutions – as so often happens in the UK.
Since 2000, it has been a government requirement for UK universities to have an IP policy. However, these can vary quite widely, particularly with regard to the ownership of student and researcher IP. The University of Glasgow’s policy is among those that treat students reasonably. They “will generally own the IP they develop during…their studies unless ownership is governed…by a third party agreement [such as] research contracts, studentship and funding agreements”.
But other institutions are less generous. Plymouth University, for instance, lays claim to all IP generated by staff, and also requires students to sign away their IP rights. Its policy adds assurances that students will “share significantly in any revenue in accordance with the scale established for members of staff”. But is it reasonable that some universities should demand 100 per cent assignment rights in the ownership of future IP created by their students? How does that incentivise them to innovate? For design students, incidentally, the situation is even worse. Universities that run degree shows often disclose unprotected ideas to the public, making a patent application or design registration impossible afterwards.
In practice, most UK universities rarely protect or exploit student IP extensively. But where they do, and revenue results, it is wrong for them to treat students as if they were employees. Students pay fees and don’t get salaries, pensions or other employee benefits.
Unless Clark promotes more consistency and common sense over the treatment of IP, he is likely to fail in his brief to fully harness the UK’s research power for the benefit of the local and national economy.