‘Let researchers get rich’ to incentivise commercialisation, says new head of ICR

Allowing scientists to profit from their research would encourage entrepreneurship, says Institute of Cancer Research chairman Luke Johnson

August 22, 2013

Johnson: ‘you can’t deny the profit motive among individuals’

Universities must be “more willing to let some of their researchers get rich” in order to incentivise research commercialisation, according to the incoming chairman of the Institute of Cancer Research.

Luke Johnson, an entrepreneur who made his name building up restaurant chains such as PizzaExpress, Strada and Giraffe, took up the unpaid role at the University of London postgraduate institute this month with an eye to boosting its fundraising and commercialisation efforts.

Across higher education, exploiting the economic benefits of research is one way in which institutions can “wean themselves off” taxpayer funding, the former chairman of Channel 4 and current chairman of the private equity firm Risk Capital Partners told Times Higher Education.

The institute was doing “great work” already in this area, he said, including last year raising more than £4 million in royalties from the recently approved prostate cancer drug Abiraterone. In percentage terms, income from commercial exploitation was the fastest growing element of the institute’s revenue, he added.

But across the sector he questioned the incentive system in place for academics. “Universities have got to be a bit more willing to let some of their researchers get rich, because, otherwise, the risk is [that] they will break away,” said Mr Johnson.

Despite the thrill of discovery being undoubtedly the greatest motivation for scientists, “at the end of the day you can’t deny the profit motive among individuals”, he said.

Mr Johnson added that he believed universities in the UK were increasingly embracing entrepreneurship and commercialisation, but could still do more.

Encouraging staff to be open to exploiting intellectual property and hiring those with experience in industry or entrepreneurship was one way to encourage commercialisation, he said, not least because such staff also provided role models for students.

Recruiting entrepreneurs to governing boards was another, Mr Johnson added, although such appointees needed to appreciate that you could not apply the same measures of success to a university as you could to a business. Mr Johnson said his own interest in higher education had grown in recent years as he had been a governor of the University of the Arts London and a member of a fundraising committee at the University of Oxford.

He predicted that having gone through a boom, higher education would now go through a period of change, including restructuring to eliminate duplication and “lightweight courses and teaching” across the sector.

“Vice-chancellors are thinking very hard about what their specialisms and strengths are…and there are going to be some efficiencies made, and more emphasis on productivity and returns. And that’s not entirely a bad thing,” he said.

Increasing competition for graduate jobs and rising fees would mean that many universities would be likely to drop or downsize their “more purely academic subjects”, Mr Johnson suggested, adding that they would probably move instead towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which was “where the jobs are”.

Well-established institutions should not be immune to change, Mr Johnson said. He argued, for example, that it was “baffling” that his alma mater, Oxford, had not sponsored an academy.


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