With Oxford, innovation is not a walk in the park

Peter Dobson, former leader of Begbroke Science Park, lays out frustrations with university

June 12, 2014

Source: Getty

Clueless: Peter Dobson said Oxford’s senior management never visited the site and ‘did not have a clue’ about his ideas

An academic has spoken out about his “frustration” at dealing with the administration of the University of Oxford when setting up one of its science parks.

Peter Dobson, former academic director of the Begbroke Science Park, said that the university administration “refused to listen to what innovation was really about”.

He added that his plans to expand the site were met with “committee upon committee usually finding reasons to say ‘no’ to every suggestion”.

Speaking at the Ideas to IPO conference in London last month, Dr Dobson said that he was “not a great fan” of allowing universities to run the science parks around them. Instead, institutions should work “much more closely” with the local region to create innovation processes.

He added: “The difficulty with [science parks] is one is always torn between running a real estate park and making as much money out of the tenants as possible or providing a supportive environment.”

Dr Dobson, who was director of the Oxford park from 2002 to 2013, said that he had tried to run Begbroke as a supportive environment while maximising real estate values. But he stressed that science parks should be about early engagement between universities and industry.

Speaking to Times Higher Education at the event, he said that members of Oxford’s senior management never visited the site and “did not have a clue” about his ideas.

“They did not know what I meant when…I said we should have collaborative labs where we should work with industry on very early stage stuff rather than waste time in spinning off companies,” he said.

He said that he had hoped to create a joint working space where academics could work on university patents with companies that might license the technology in the future.

Dr Dobson, who said that he had to take forced retirement from the institution in September 2013 at the age of 71, explained that it took him three to four years to get a new access road to the site built.

Now a principal fellow at the applied research group WMG at the University of Warwick, he said that other universities do not appear to “interfere too much” with their science parks.

He pointed to a successful park in Southampton, to Imperial College London’s plans for its new White City campus and to University College London’s hopes to develop the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park into an innovation space.

“Oxford is a bit of a special case because it is so traditional,” he said.

Begbroke houses about 30 companies, many of which have developed out of university activities. It is one of two science parks affiliated with the university. The other is Oxford Science Park, which is a joint venture between Magdalen College, Oxford and the financial services company Prudential.

A spokesman for Oxford said that innovation was “embedded at the heart of [the university’s] Strategic Plan, and Begbroke Science Park is an integral part of that plan”. As an example, he cited the recently announced £11 million Begbroke Innovation Accelerator to help small and medium-sized businesses to bring ideas to market, in which Oxford had invested £7 million.

holly.else@tsleducation.com

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