Large research-led universities in the United Kingdom are as good as their North American counterparts at starting market-leading spin-off companies, according to a report out this week.
Between 20 and 30 UK universities are big enough to sustain effective commercialisation of their own research, according to the report commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. These institutions aim to establish about four spin-offs a year, which is in line with many US universities, it says.
But the report says that many UK universities are too small to establish and sustain cost-effective spin-off enterprises. It recommends these institutions form consortia, or that a national fund is set up to assist smaller universities.
The financial returns to universities from spin-offs are modest, according to the report. Vice-chancellors say they are no substitute for public funding. Publicly funded research at the largest UK universities now tops Pounds 100 million. The report says that even the largest UK universities receive only about Pounds 2 million a year from commercial innovation.
But vice-chancellors say that the wider benefits to the UK economy are considerable given the international market premium on high technology. They say that the findings challenge perceptions that the UK's research-led universities lag behind their US counterparts in innovation.
Robin Jackson, research policy adviser at the CVCP, said: "The report shows that universities have come a long way on innovation. In fact, our biggest universities are comparable with US counterparts. There is no room for complacency, but perhaps the agenda ought now to focus more on business and what it is doing to support research innovation."
The report found that universities are less proactive in generating start-up companies. Unlike spin-offs, which exploit research innovations, start-ups can be any companies spawned by current or former staff or students. It says that universities tend to concentrate on cutting edge, spin-off enterprise at the expense of start-ups.
The report is co-authored by Sir Douglas Hague, who is chairman of Wire Ltd, a knowledge broking company, and an associate fellow of Templeton College, Oxford, and by Kate Oakley, an associate director of the Local Futures Group, which works on sustainable economic strategies.