US-UK alliance to share ‘experiments’ on research commercialisation

New group of eight universities, joined by MIT and Stanford, sees lack of private investment in ‘niche’ university research as a key barrier

March 5, 2019
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Lack of interest from private firms presents one of the biggest barriers to successful knowledge exchange between universities and industry, a US-UK alliance of leading universities recently joined by MIT and Stanford University has warned.

Meeting in London to discuss commercialisation strategies with government policymakers, representatives from Cambridge Enterprise (the University of Cambridge’s commercialisation arm), MIT and Stanford highlighted differences in agendas, timescales and geographical environment as some of the challenges facing researchers and businesses attempting to collaborate.

The group is part of a newly formed alliance between eight elite US and UK universities, designed to allow leaders to share tips for best practice on the commercialisation of research.

The universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh and Oxford, along with Imperial College London and UCL, already have a partnership in existence, meeting quarterly as the “6Us”, joined by their track records of producing the highest rate of technology transfer among UK institutions.

The addition of Stanford and MIT was made formal at a meeting in Cambridge last month, giving the group the temporary name of “8U” until a formal name is agreed.

Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of a meeting with UK universities and science minister Chris Skidmore, Tony Raven, chief executive of Cambridge Enterprise, said that the most important thing policymakers could do for research productivity was to ensure “long-term, stable funding and the ability for universities to play to their own strengths”.

Securing investment from third parties remained a problem, even for universities with well-established links to industry, he stressed, meaning that ministers could not expect a boost in productivity overnight.

Giving the example of biotechnology start-up hubs in science and business parks in Cambridge, he said: “Almost all the incubators in Cambridge are owned by universities that have been funded by government. We have really, really struggled to get anyone commercial to fund an incubator.”

Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, added that it was “understandably difficult” for businesses to commit to long-term projects run by universities given that they may not see returns on their investment for several years.

“The research that is being done [by universities] and the technologies that are coming out are very niche – and often there are no markets for it,” she said. “An established company has a product pipeline and they want something that’s going to be [available] in the next three to five years. We have tech that, if we are lucky, will perhaps be commercialised in five to eight years – and if it’s a drug it’s double that.”

With no “one size fits all” approach, the group said that it hoped that by enabling greater discussion between institutions, and in turn passing their findings on to others, university leaders would be able to “streamline” their approach to commercialisation, saving time and taxpayers’ money.

The UK’s 2017 industrial strategy report highlighted Stanford and MIT as examples of universities engaging in excellent knowledge transfer – but the mention received a backlash from academics arguing that these US institutions set an unrealistic benchmark for UK institutions working within a very different environment compared with Silicon Valley or Boston.

But Dr Raven said that given the UK and US had “similar goals” – for instance the UK’s new knowledge exchange framework and the forthcoming Return on Investment Initiative in the US – it was not so ludicrous to make comparisons.

Citing Global University Venturing 2013-17 Data Review figures, Dr Raven highlighted that, of the total investment raised by university spin-outs around the world, five in the top 10 institutions were from the UK and five from the US.  “UK universities raised around $5 billion (£3.8 billion) and US universities raised about $5.9 billion,” he added. “So we may have had to go about it in very different ways, but we are playing at similar levels of performance, which I think is underappreciated in the UK and that’s where this dialogue [between universities] is useful.”

“If we’re all doing the same experiment, we learn the same thing. If we do different experiments, we learn lots of different things that we can share,” he added.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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