In the late 1980s, Exeter University had a lucrative royalty deal for an anti-cancer drug with a pharmaceutical company. The income was shared between the inventors and their department; the rest went in the general university pot rather than being reinvested in research and technology transfer.
Although activity has risen in the past two years, with the university creating six spin-off companies, its licensing income is still low.
But innovation manager Robin Jackson says this does not reflect the true value of intellectual property. In fact, the intellectual property "hook" is used to land research collaborations and contracts from industry.
Dr Jackson said: "You can license technology only if you're going to make it profitable. But to reach that point you need to get more research and development money. So you have to go to industry."
There is just one spin-off company at Luton University, Seraph Technologies, which was created in 1997 from work in the Sensor and Cryobiology Research Centre.
Although it has some licensing deals, most of Luton's £1.8 million research income comes from contracts and research for local businesses.
The university brings in more than £5 million a year from helping other people's businesses get off the ground or grow, rather than starting its own companies.
Frank Burdett, director of business development, said: "It would be easy to buy companies off the shelf and say we're doing spin-offs. But we see our role as helping existing companies grow.
"We turn academic research into courses for business people. It's knowledge transfer rather than technology transfer."