UK risks patent foul-up

January 11, 2002

The United Kingdom risks fumbling the exploitation of top research unless universities improve their handling of intellectual property, one of the first "David Beckhams of science" has warned.

Richard ffrench-Constant is concerned about progress commercialising his work at Bath University.

While UK analysts defended British universities, insisting they have raised their ability to protect IP in the past five years, they admitted this had been patchy.

George Lunt, deputy vice-chancellor of Bath, said the university had woken up to the challenge of exploiting research in areas such as biology and recruited half-a-dozen knowledge-transfer staff to support the existing in-house IP legal specialist.

Professor ffrench-Constant was one of the first recipients of a research merit award - dubbed the "David Beckhams of science" - to tempt the world's best scientists to the UK.

He left the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the world's premier centres for biological research, to become professor of natural history at Bath.

Professor ffrench-Constant works on the bacterium Photorhabdus , which cooperates with nematode worms to invade and consume insects. He hoped the project would yield a lucrative array of antibiotics and agrochemicals.

In the United States, the work's initial stages produced ten patent applications through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, (Warf), the independent body that commercialises Wisconsin-Madison's research.

In the UK, the project attracted £1 million of government money to aid its exploitation. But Professor ffrench-Constant said this was not matched by internal efforts to protect the IP with a view to pursuing licensing deals.

He said the two institutions could not be compared, but warned: "UK universities should get their act together - we should be learning from Warf."

Ian Harvey, chief executive officer of BTG, a leading British technology commercialisation organisation, said there was an overemphasis on spin-offs at the expense of licensing deals in the UK.

A recent survey of higher education-business interaction shows that 311 non-software licences were granted by the sector in 1999-2000 while 199 spin-off firms were formed.

Dr Harvey felt a healthier divide would be ten licensing deals for every spin-off company, as it is in the US. He feared this apparent imbalance might see businesses fail and scare away potential investors.

David Charles, the survey's author, said maintaining sufficient IP expertise was beyond all but the larger research universities, prompting the formation of commercialisation consortia.

He added that the high ratio of licensing to spin-offs was due to UK universities not having the resources to support patents without commercial interest.

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