Hard sell for inventions

July 7, 1995

It is neither the scientists nor engineers in our universities that are "patently poor at capitalising on ideas" (THES, June 23) but the people who represent them. University researchers and teaching staff are generally not the stuff that good commercial negotiators are made of.

Indeed, there is an understandable tendency for those in the creative academic community to resent the need to be both originator and pedlar. That the majority are perfectly conversant with the realities of commercial life is not to say that they are equipped to handle commercial activities successfully. Contract law, licensing structures, marketing, near to market and maturity analysis, joint ventures and corporate partnerships are generally the domain of grittier people.

The realisation that experts need to be involved in research support, licensing and brokering intellectual property made some universities (with even moderate patent portfolios and research funding requirements) form trading companies tasked to capitalise on all commercial aspects of university research, expertise and services. Unfortunately, many had unrealistic expectations. Not only of the potential of their patents and facilities, but also those supposedly responsible for exploiting them. The result is that too many of these university operations are staffed by people who are mis-appointed and mis-perceive what the job is. Marketers, MBAs, accountants, are all very convincing. Unfortunately, they can seldom cold-sell a commodity like a new technology or chemical process. Assuming a patent has a conferred worth, and thus by definition is valuable, is entirely wrong. Simply getting a patent is meaningless unless you can exploit it. Even a good patent, encapsulating a really creative idea, has no guarantee of commercial success unless it is marketed appropriately and has a well-judged commercial direction. This latter process usually takes an individual of particular tenacity - rarely found in non-professional IP brokers.

One last observation. The lack of success in many university commercial operations was entirely predictable. I have first-hand experience of interviews for university commercial staff where previous successful experience in brokering intellectual property and research support was thought secondary to the "right" business credentials and any mention of the harsh reality behind making money for the institution in question was considered "inappropriate" (not my term).

BARRIE BLAKE-COLEMAN Queen Alexandra Road Salisbury, Wiltshire

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