A brave step to ensure the future of innovation

December 2, 2005

The arguments against Cambridge's reforms are arrogant and insulting, says Dragons' Den's Doug Richard

Cambridge University is gearing up for a vote that will send ripples far beyond the institution itself. It will affect the overall economic wellbeing of the region, and, I would assert, the wrong outcome will damage an asset that is critical to the nation as a whole. The vote is to decide on a proposal to clarify and define the relationship between the university, the staff and the students when intellectual property is created.

The opponents of this proposition say they fear the potential loss of freedoms and the knee-capping of the cherished "Cambridge phenomenon". This is as gross a mischaracterisation of the policy as I could possibly imagine. It is as though we were not reading from the same document. Thus, I feel obliged to state the obvious.

This proposed policy, first and foremost, enshrines the right of academics to the copyright protection of their writings to a far greater degree than most universities have ever established.

Second, it places in the hands of the inventors the right to decide whether to contribute to society inventions and innovations that might otherwise be patentable, and thus to secure their freedom to publish and advance science for the greater good.

Do not shake your head in disbelief. This is a ground-breaking policy. It rightly characterises a university such as Cambridge as a wellspring of academic research. And academic research is nourished, challenged and, ultimately, proved through publication. By leaving the choice to academics, the policy ensures that they, not the university, have the ultimate authority to pursue research rather than to pursue a potential profit that appears along the path.

Third, in those cases where a member of the university does indeed protect an innovation by patent though does not use the in-house services to do so, 85 per cent of the ownership of the property is apportioned to the inventors and 15 per cent to the university.

If you are still reading, you might wonder on what grounds someone would oppose this. The most frequently stated objection is that the university, by not having had any stated policy for the better part of 800 years, has done just fine - so why change anything? The other objection is that Cambridge would not have a thriving technology and innovation cluster if the university had had such a policy in place.

Neither argument stands up to scrutiny. The university is faced with huge future funding challenges that no single mechanism will solve. As the vice-chancellor has pointed out, it must have multiple balanced streams of income. This includes increased endowment revenues as well as returns on the intellectual property that is created using funding awarded to the university in the first instance.

As to the possibility of the Cambridge cluster being damaged, that is positively insulting. Cambridge is one of the top five universities in the world. It belongs to a very exclusive league. Of those five universities, it is the only one that does not get a share of the intellectual property that is generated by its staff and students. Each of the other four has had more onerous policies in place for many years, and in no case have these policies slowed the growth of the clusters that surround them.

The Cambridge cluster does not need a crutch. It is not infirm. It is the most vibrant cluster in Europe. It received almost 25 per cent of all the venture funding distributed across the UK last year.

Finally, I have a core objection to the notion that the university is not entitled to a share of the intellectual property generated by its staff and students. You and I are taxpayers. Our taxes pay for a considerable portion of the salaries and laboratories in which our academics work. The university provides the opportunity for this intellectual property to be created. It is partly the nation's in return.

It is arrogant and extraordinary to think that just because someone's output is in some ways intangible and intellectual, it should not be shared among those who have provided for its creation.

The university has done something rare and brave. It has not backed away from a critical issue, nor has it slavishly followed the US, as is too often done. And, in crafting a special position for a special university, it has created what I believe will, in time, be regarded as a model policy.

Cambridge will once again have provided the world with an innovation; but this time the innovation is on the matter of innovation itself.

Doug Richard is the founder of business research company Library House and a panellist on BBC TV's Dragons' Den .

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