Fledgling commercialisation departments in New Zealand's universities are overtaking their North American counterparts in the number of spin-off companies and patents they produce.
Figures compiled by accountants Ernst & Young show that for every dollar invested in 2003-05, New Zealand universities produced twice as many spin-off companies as the US and half as many again as Canada. Patent applications were on a par with the US and were produced 30 per cent more efficiently than in Canada.
The market capitalisation of companies founded using intellectual property developed by New Zealand universities grew from NZ$76 million (£ million) to more than NZ$430 million in the same period.
The figures represent the activities of universities' commercial research and knowledge-transfer subsidiaries. They were compared with data collected by the Chicago-based Association of University Technology Managers.
John Chang, head of Canterprise Ltd, the commercial arm of the University of Canterbury, said the numbers came as a surprise. They were especially pleasing as New Zealand had been a late entrant into the commercialisation game, he said. "Universities have been doing this for 30 years in the US, but only one New Zealand university has been doing it for longer than seven years."
Dr Chang did not know the reason for New Zealand's sudden flowering of academic entrepreneurialism. He suggested that cultural reasons might have led to reluctance in the past, and that shrinking resource and revenue structures in recent years had encouraged managers to look at how universities could better exploit their intellectual assets.
"The role of universities is to educate, not to make money. This model separates high-risk business ventures by setting up a limited liability company," he said.
But some staff at the University of Auckland said there was no longer enough distance between the university's academic and business operations.
Peter Wills, an associate professor, said the university's plans for a multimillion-dollar Institute for Innovation in Biotechnology were using "completely the wrong model" for partnership with biotechnology business interests. "Everything is secret, supposedly on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, but the conflict-of-interest issues are enormous," he said.
A university spokeswoman said the project involved "co-locators" - biotech firms that would be housed within the institute - but would not comment further.