Industry tie no road to riches

June 13, 2003

Many UK universities are being overambitious about how much revenue they will be able to generate through business links and innovation activities, says Richard Lambert, who is running the government review of business-university collaboration.

The former Financial Times editor warned universities to think about why they were engaged in such activities.

"Even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's revenue generation is a tiny fraction of its total revenue. Universities should be doing it for broader reasons than trying to plug a gap in funding," he said.

In 2001, MIT, which has one of the most successful university technology-transfer offices in the world, brought in $74 million (£44 million) in licensing income. Its total research budget was $788 million.

The Lambert consultation reveals a significant culture gulf between how businesses and universities wanted collaboration to operate.

Despite the response being better than expected, one group was missing - medium-sized firms. Mr Lambert said they appeared to have no contact with universities, despite many, especially in manufacturing, feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.

The review was announced by the chancellor last November. Mr Lambert's remit was to "examine how the long-term links between business and British universities can be strengthened to the benefit of the UK's economy", mainly from the point of view of business.

He was later asked to canvass business for its views on the governance and management of UK universities and their effectiveness at research and knowledge transfer. Universities feared the government would use the report to force reforms. Mr Lambert said this was not his aim.

His consultation asked business and universities four broad questions:

* What examples of good practice in collaboration can you identify?

* What are the main barriers to collaboration?

* How can the skills needs of industry be met by academia?

* What are the financial aspects to be taken into consideration?

Mr Lambert recently took up a place on the Bank of England's monetary policy committee.

BUSINESS SECTOR RESPONSES

* Computer company IBM said it preferred to establish sole ownership of intellectual property and then widely cross-license.

This, it said, could enable universities to rationalise IP practice. It pointed out that academic salaries were low compared with the private sector.

There could be little hope that many poorly paid academics would gain the skills needed to work on industrial exploitation, it added

* Supermarket giant Tesco said links between business and universities were most successful and sustainable when business led, allowing clear business-linked outcomes to be delivered. It pointed to its links with the Manchester Business School, which trains its store managers

* Clive Mather, UK chairman for energy transnational Shell, said his prime concern was the falling supply of UK science and technology graduates. He said Shell was fortunate in that it drew qualified graduates from abroad to meet any UK shortfall

* Computer software company Microsoft said that private firms would commercialise publicly funded research only if they could protect their IP and get a return on the investment

It said: "If the government wants to achieve real economic benefits from its investment, it must establish a framework that allows business to develop commercially viable products from government-funded research."

UNIVERSITY SECTOR RESPONSES

* The vice-chancellors' body, Universities UK, said it agreed that changes were needed to improve business links, adding that this would challenge the prevailing culture.

It said it was vital to recognise different motivations. Business looked to profit, but academe was fuelled by curiosity and a desire to communicate knowledge.

Risk aversion was another significant barrier. While shareholders and financiers accepted a degree of risk, this was not universally true in higher education, where staff felt accountable for the public funding given to them

* Research councils pointed to a shortage of proof of concept funding, preventing universities getting technology to a stage where it might interest business

* The MRC made specific complaints about biomedical companies, saying they had a tendency to bypass technology-transfer staff and "play on some university investigators' relative inexperience on funding and IP issues".

* Pparc said networking between business and universities could be improved. The UK lacked an "effective national framework for brokering new partnerships", it said

* The EPSRC stated: "Universities have different approaches to IP and this can create problems. The academic community needs to have realistic expectations of the financial and other benefits from ownership of IP."

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