Let academics keep ownership of spin-out IP, says report

Thinktank advocates Swedish-style ‘professors’ privilege’ model to boost commercialisation efforts

August 1, 2023
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The UK should shift its spin-out policy towards a “professors’ privilege” model to help it achieve its ambition of becoming a science and technology superpower, according to a new report.

The study, conducted by thinktank The Entrepreneurs Network (Ten), says spin-out policy is “hugely consequential for the overall rate of innovation in an economy” but that the UK’s might be holding its brightest minds back.

It comes as the Government is conducting a review – led by University of Oxford vice-chancellor Irene Tracey and Andrew Williamson, a managing partner of the University of Cambridge’s in-house venture capital fund – into turning university research into commercial success.

Researchers say the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) model, which is the dominant one in both the UK and abroad, aims to add value by filtering, refining and packaging faculty inventions for industrial customers.

However, the report notes that a TTO’s ability to turn academic ideas into commercial success appears to be highly dependent on the institution in question – usually lacking the necessary resources.

“Because the university owns the intellectual property of its faculty and students, [spin-outs] typically have no choice but to use their university’s TTO,” the report says.

“Each TTO therefore effectively exercises a local monopoly over its university’s commercial research outputs.”

Instead, Ten suggests opting for a “professors’ privilege” model – which Sweden has maintained and produced a high rate of academic entrepreneurship from – wherein inventors own their own intellectual property, instead of assigning it to universities.

Researchers say that when academics retain ownership of their intellectual property they are much more likely to commercialise it successfully than when ownership is vested in their universities. They also retain the ability to take advantage of other, non-commercial ways of encouraging the adoption of their innovations.

Recent figures showed that a record number of student start-up companies were created at UK universities in 2021-22, employing the full-time equivalent of almost 100,000 people.

The report says British universities are a wellspring of innovative ideas, but that growing evidence suggests successful spin-outs may have occurred in spite of, rather than because of, current government policy.

Instead, it said a system of “professors’ privilege” would put the UK in a markedly stronger position when it comes to nurturing successful spin-outs.

“The sooner that the government gets on with enacting [these changes], the more assured it can be that it is doing all it can to deliver its aspiration of making the UK a science and technology superpower,” the report says.


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