'Do not bank on spin-off income'

November 14, 2003

Government and universities are wrong to bank on private research being a significant source of income, the head of one of the world's leading technology-transfer offices said this week, writes Caroline Davis.

Lita Nelsen, director of the technology-licensing office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that the apparent infatuation of British university heads and government officials with technology transfer as a significant income stream was misguided.

Hitting upon a blockbuster idea or licensing deal was the only way to make serious money, and that was a matter of luck, she said.

Ms Nelsen said: "You don't run your income based on the hope of winning the lottery.

"Technology transfer is not there as a financial support. If you see it as that, then it is just not achievable. The purpose is to get new technologies into the economy, building new products, cures and companies."

She also warned that the whims of the market - for example the current investment downturn following overenthusiasm during the dotcom boom - meant technology-transfer income could not be relied on as a source of funding for universities.

Ms Nelsen, who was in the UK this week to speak at the Cambridge MIT Institute's annual summit in Newcastle, said that institutions had to realise that just 2 or 3 per cent of their budgets would come from such activity.

She said that the difference between US and UK universities was that across the Atlantic, technology transfer was seen as a useful by-product of university activity whereas over here it is seen as a core mission.

Although among the most successful internationally, less than 10 per cent of MIT's research budget comes from such technology transfer, she said.

Concrete gains to universities include showing the public that investing their money in research produces benefits "besides entertaining professors in their laboratories", she said.

University technology transfer also boosts local economies, especially through the creation of science parks, and gives staff and students experience of starting up a company.

But Ms Nelsen had praise for UK technology-transfer offices, saying they were much more successful in intensively nurturing and growing their spin-off companies than their US counterparts.

She said none in the US could match the level achieved by the likes of Imperial College London and Oxford University.

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