Don't let the tail wag the dog

MIT's tech-transfer expert tells UK not to abandon blue skies and students. Hannah Fearn reports

April 16, 2009

A world-leading expert in university-business partnerships has warned that the UK must not give up its internationally renowned blue-skies research in a drive to exploit the financial returns of academics' work.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Lita Nelsen, director of the technology licensing office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that the exploitation of new technology and ideas was not a "way to get rich".

"The UK is in the very top ranks of fundamental research in the world. What we don't want to do is turn the university research agenda into one focused on technology transfer. We don't want the tail to wag the dog," she said.

Ms Nelsen co-founded Praxis, which runs a not-for-profit technology-transfer training programme for academics and industry professionals. Her contribution to the UK's burgeoning knowledge-transfer environment was recognised recently when she was appointed MBE for services to innovation.

Praxis emerged out of the Cambridge-MIT Institute, the partnership between MIT and the University of Cambridge that was set up by Gordon Brown while he was Chancellor. It was designed to encourage better exploitation of research in the UK.

In 2002, Ms Nelsen took part in an exchange programme between the two universities, in which she was paired with David Secher, who was director of research services at Cambridge in the UK at that time. She spent six weeks shadowing Professor Secher and, later that year, they set up Praxis. The aim was to create expertise in the UK.

"There were lots of tech-transfer people in the UK but no way to train them," Ms Nelsen said. "What we wanted to do was indigenise it and use the expertise that already resided in the UK - practitioners teaching practitioners."

Ms Nelsen said that the UK technology-transfer market was still far less mature than its US equivalent, but was growing successfully.

"It's a smaller country, a smaller research base and, in terms of its emphasis on technology transfer, it started a lot later. In the US, it just sort of grew. It takes a while. The UK has accelerated this substantially," she said. "You can feel the enthusiasm. I don't take credit for starting it, but the emphasis is very important."

Ms Nelsen said that developing the technology-transfer sector was "a long-term process" that was also subject to the restrictions of the current economic climate. "Clearly it's going to go through a bad time right now with the economy," she said.

But Ms Nelsen said that she remained confident, as venture capitalists were still investing in start-ups. "Many of them said that they made a lot of money from companies that started in hard times. These are investments in true technology," she said.

Ms Nelsen said that the most important product to spin off from higher education was not the cutting-edge technology companies, but the graduate.

"The absolute best technology transfer is the graduating student, educated at the state-of-the-art (institution) in methods of research," she said.

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