Universities need ‘distinctive’ approaches for tech transfer

McMillan group report for Hefce urges institutions not to focus just on the number of spin-off companies 

September 1, 2016
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UK universities need to take “distinctive” approaches and be “less preoccupied by comparisons” when judging how best to share their research with wider society, a review of their technology transfer activity has concluded.

The review, led by Keele University vice-chancellor Trevor McMillan, was established after the previous government asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to develop a guiding framework for good knowledge exchange between universities and businesses.

The group considered technology transfer practice in the UK – as well as in France, Germany, the US and Australia – and concludes that UK universities were at a “world-class standard in technology transfer, although we should be aspirational in our practice”.

It finds that technology transfer – rather than producing financial benefits for all – usually has a net cost for universities.

“Technology transfer is expensive, and universities do it to further their societal impacts. Universities cannot be indifferent on who pays because of matters of governance and sustainability," it says.

While Professor McMillan’s group found that research-intensive universities tend to engage in the most technology transfer, and many universities “quite appropriately” do none, it concedes that it is difficult to identify which universities were pursuing the most effective policies. “Outcomes of technology transfer are significantly skewed by a few blockbusters and success is likely influenced by a myriad of factors”, the group reports.

Technology transfer “is only one route to impact”, it adds, and focusing just on the number of spin-off companies created from technology developed at a university gives a “distorted picture” of how much a university’s research has contributed to society.

The group recommends that universities continue with other forms of knowledge exchange, and senior university leadership has an essential role in deciding whether to give priority to technology transfer and, if so, how to approach commercialisation.

It concludes that when it comes to universities – and countries – maximising their impact on society through research, it is important to retain individuality through “distinctive innovative approaches”.

A university’s approach to technology transfer must take into account the institutions’ character, the nature of the technology itself, and the local “ecosystem”: the entrepreneurial conditions beyond the university.

“There are no one-size-fits-all policies that work for every technology, university or place. Universities (and countries) have to develop a strategy that fits their characteristics and circumstances,” the report says.

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