Academics venture to bring in the money

July 28, 2006

Imperial staff have the best heads for business in UK academe, reports Letitia Hughes

Academics at Imperial College London are the most business-minded in the UK, according to a survey in which their institution tops the tables for spin-offs and money earned through contract research.

Imperial made more than £47 million from its contract research in 2003-04, according to the first institution-by-institution breakdown of higher education business activity by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Next came Birmingham University with £45.1 million, followed by Leeds University with £40.1 million.

Imperial Innovations, the technology transfer office at Imperial, had responsibility for 53 active spin-offs between 2003 and 2004, putting it ahead of Manchester University, which had 48, and Oxford University, which had 45.

Tidu Maini, Imperial's pro-rector for development and corporate affairs, said: "We have ways of engaging with industry, so we can assure companies the research will be done on time. Most companies feel comfortable that they can rely on you to deliver.

"At Innovations for the past ten years, we have heavily invested in infrastructure and brought in people from industry."

He added that the flotation of Imperial Innovations on the Alternative Investment Market next week, the first undertaken by a majority university-owned technology transfer company in the UK, illustrated the success.

"This is a sign that people are willing to invest in the university," Dr Maini said.

Newcastle University comes top for the number of staff employed to engage with commercial partners. It has 134 staff, beating Staffordshire University, which has 110, and Oxford, which has 96.

Trevor Page, Newcastle's pro vice-chancellor for external relations and research, said: "In the past few years we have invested in both people and infrastructure to allow staff to more actively engage with the many aspects of our interactions with business and the community."

Elsewhere in the survey, Birmingham University had the highest revenue from the exploitation of intellectual property, earning nearly £5.7 million in 2003-04, while Bristol University registered 604 active patents, more than any other institution. Surrey University had consultancy contracts worth Pounds 14.1 million.

Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research and knowledge transfer at Hefce, said: "It shows how fantastically, over a five-year timescale, our higher education sector is collaborating with business."

He said it also illustrated the "huge range" of university knowledge transfer activities.

The fifth annual Higher Education Business and Community Interaction survey has taken a step forward in the use and availability of data compared with previous years.

For the first time, data has directly informed Hefce funding decisions, as well as providing a breakdown of spin-off activity institution by institution.

Mr Thirunamachandran added: "We are trying to ensure the survey gives us a decent time series, which we can then use to consult with our stakeholders."

'You have to be excited, to be driven, to create a successful spin off'

Jo Hajnal said that his motivation for being involved in a spin-off company is that "you want to make a difference, and to do something of value, in more than an academic sense".

Professor Hajnal, a chair in imaging science at Imperial College London and a director of the spin-off company IXICO, is one of four founders based at Imperial and University College London.

The spin-off aims to provide image analysis services to the pharmaceutical industry. He said: "Information from medical images is increasingly being used to assess the efficacy of new medicines, but analysing this complex data remains a challenge. The spin-off involves an advanced technology, where medical images are analysed through an automated and sophisticated process."

Professor Hajnal enjoyed the experience of developing a spin-off and the opportunities it offered. "It is a different perspective. The demands of creating a successful business are different from research, and this makes it challenging and interesting," he said.

"It is difficult to convert academic findings into something of practical utility in the wider world," he added, "A spin-off allows you to make that translation directly. The people who know the most about the potential of their findings are those who did the research, so academics can take their destiny into their own hands to create that difference for the world."

However, he stressed: "Spinning off a company is a lot of work: it requires a high level of commitment and belief in what you are doing." He said that Imperial recognised that part of its mission is to contribute to society in diverse ways, "one of which is to facilitate wealth creation"

He also pointed out that for a spin-off to succeed, it required personal drive as well as institutional support. "You need entrepreneurship; you have to be excited by the prospect."

International comparisons

The UK survey data can be compared with the Association of University Technology Managers Licensing Survey, which collects data for North America

  • US institutions formed one spin-off for every £61 million of research expenditure compared with about £22 million per spin-off in the UK
  • A comparison of licensing income as a percentage of research expenditure shows that US institutions generated 3 per cent compared with 1.1 per cent for UK institutions
  • Licensing and spin-off data suggest that different strategies dominate the exploitation of intellectual property in the two countries. US institutions perform better on licensing than UK institutions, whereas UK institutions form new spin-off companies more readily.


Number of active spin-off firms
Imperial 53
Manchester 48
Oxford 45
Cambridge 43
UCL 37
Queen’s Belfast 36
Strathclyde 34
Leeds 32
Sheffield 31

Total value of contract research
Imperial 47.3
Birmingham 45.1
Leeds 40.1
King’s College 31.8
UCL 28.1
Oxford 22.4
Sheffield 21.6
Cambridge 19.1
Southampton 18.6
Glasgow 18.2

Consultancy contracts

Surrey 14.1
Bristol 11.8
Imperial 10.2
Wales Col of Med 8.8
Queen Mary 8.7
Cardiff 7.6
Southampton 7.4
Durham 4.8
Cranfield 4.7
Lancaster 4.5

Intellectual property

Birmingham 5.7
Southampton 3.1
Manchester 2.7
Heriot-Watt 2.5
Wales Col of Med 2.4
Cambridge 2.2
Imperial 2.2
UCL 1.8
Oxford 1.7
Nottingham 1.1

Total number of active patents
Bristol 604
Southampton 572
Glasgow 376
Imperial 338
UCL 307
Queen Mary 229
King’s College 207
Manchester 183
Cambridge 153
Sheffield 144

Source: Hefce

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