Mexico looks to UK to profit from spin-offs

August 12, 2005

Mexican education bosses are so impressed by UK universities' success at exploiting research that they want to apply British knowhow to some of their own scientific projects.

Jaime Parada Avila, director of Conacyt, Mexico's National Council for Science and Technology, told The Times Higher that Mexico was keen to learn from the British approach to enterprise.

Dr Parada Avila said he wanted to emulate Britain's "dynamic spin-off rate and aggressive attitude towards forming close ties with the business community".

"Research and development is the name of the game for our institutions. But, until recently, our intellectual property has remained in the laboratories and projects with commercial potential have not been exploited," he said.

"In the UK, you are much more advanced. There is much we can learn from the way that universities are securing funding to develop projects."

For British institutions, closer links with Mexico are clearly desirable. Mexico has been touted as the "new India" - a highly motivated population keen to improve its skills. This offers the opportunity to recruit students and forge research collaborations.

Last month saw the first UK-Mexico Science Technology and Innovation Exchange (STiEX), organised by students on London's City University MSc in science and entrepreneurship in collaboration with the Mexican state of Morelos - home to several of the country's leading science research centres.

Building on contacts made at STiEX, three researchers from the Mexican National Autonomous University (Unam) will come to the UK in October to work with business and technology-transfer specialists at City University. The three Mexicans, including Xavier Soberon, the head of Unam's Biotechnology Institute, will join the "business plan boot camp" based at City's Cass Business School. Next year they will work with Conacyt to launch a business plan competition aimed at researchers working in Mexico's public university system.

Julie Logan, director of Simfonec, London's largest science enterprise centre, which is led by Cass, said: "The aim of the visit is to introduce academics to enterprise and knowledge-transfer initiatives in the UK.

"It will enable them to pass on skills to colleagues and students who plan to spin-off companies or license intellectual property to third parties."

Dr Logan will return to Mexico in the spring to give masterclasses and further advice on securing funding for potential spin-off companies.

"We can offer a different perspective from the US, which spins off one company per £53 million of research investment compared with the UK, where we have managed one per £17 million.

"And we are much closer to the Mexicans in the sense that we in the UK only really began to capitalise on our own research five or six years ago.

"The Mexicans can see that they are where we were in 1999, whereas the US has been spinning off and licensing for much longer."

According to a UK Higher Education Business and Community survey published earlier this year, turnover from formal spin-off companies topped £358 million in 2002-03. Consultancy fees and sale of spin-off equity was worth £155 million to British higher education institutions.

No equivalent statistics for Mexico are available, but the latest figures show that less than 5 per cent of patents awarded are related to applications by Mexican nationals. Almost all were applied for on behalf of US or transnational firms.

Dr Parada Avila was confident that this would change in the next few years as institutions put more emphasis on developing research.

"In the UK, you understand the broader value of quality research. This is a very important model that we would like to pursue in Mexican universities, where research staff are judged more on their publications.

"We do not have a strong track record in securing patents, but by requiring our investigators to work more closely with industry and to consider the potential value of their work in the wider arena we expect to see more universities applying for patents.

"I would like to think that, aside from the obvious financial advantage of any royalties or fees a licence may generate, that a closer relationship between the institution and the private sector could also lead to job opportunities for students, which we badly need."

That view is shared by Cetino Vadillo, general director of university education at the Mexican Ministry of Education.

He notes that 85 per cent of research and development in Mexico is carried out in higher education institutions but admits that universities and research centres need back-up from specialists in finance and entrepreneurship.

THE REVOLUTION STARTS HERE

Morelos state was the heartland of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, but today it is experiencing a revolution of a very different kind. The federal and state governments have invested more than £15 million in a science and technology hub for the 21st century.

The development, an hour's drive from Mexico City, has attracted investment from the country's largest academic institution, the Mexican National Autonomous University, which has moved several research centres to the state. Morelos now has the highest number of researchers per head of population in the country. Biotechnology, genomics, energy and material sciences are particularly well represented.

Consuelo Valverde Prado, who combined her studies for an MSc in science entrepreneurship at City University, London, and managing science promotion for the state of Morelos, plans to open a Centre for Science and Technology Transfer next year.

"It will be a one-stop shop for companies in the state. We are aiming to become Mexico's byword for discovery and innovation," she said.

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