A method to the magic

While those new to commercialising research often obsess about owning IP, seasoned unicorn breeders find a more relaxed approach is most effective

April 28, 2022
This is the seventh, and final, tapestry of the 15th century series The Unicorn Tapestries to illustrate A method to the magic
Source: Getty

One of the perennial criticisms of universities in the UK is that while they produce research of the highest quality, they are less effective than they should be at converting it into commercial success.

Hand-wringing about the “valley of death” in which potential unicorns stumble and perish long before they have the chance to flourish into billion-pound businesses is nothing new.

In a 2012 report, the Royal Academy of Engineering identifies the point of maximum risk being when significant scaling-up of investment is needed, “making the risk of failure much more likely to outweigh any potential future return”.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, since it can act as a quality control filter – among the sun-scorched skeletons are plenty of nags that only imagined they might one day grow a horn on their forehead.

But despite this, there has long been a sense that the UK’s approach to innovation has been less successful than some others – particularly the US – in backing ideas that could make it big.

For university spin-outs, one of the significant issues is intellectual property rights.

Universities new to commercialising research can tend to believe that ownership of IP is vital. But as both the Royal Academy of Engineering report and our cover feature this week explore, more experienced institutions often take a relaxed approach to IP, and a more rounded view of the skills that different parties bring to the innovation process.

Lord Willetts, the former UK universities and science minister, tells a (possibly apocryphal) story about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most successful universities in the world.

According to estimates, the institution is responsible for some 26,000 spin-outs, with a combined annual turnover of $1.5 trillion (£1.2 trillion).

And yet, says Willetts, “it’s sometimes said that MIT actually makes more from T-shirts than it does from its spin-outs”.

The conclusion he draws is not that MIT is naive, but that “the US is much more grown up about this” than universities in some other countries.

Why is it a mistake for institutions to obsess about owning IP? As the Royal Academy of Engineering report explains, “where a company owns the initial IP, and the university is one of the shareholders, the company is free to act as it wishes, guided by commercial principle.

“Allowing organisations independent of universities to bid to run spin-out companies can also reduce the fail-rate.”

For these reasons, more seasoned players “often come to recognise that ownership of IP is not as important as value gained through exploitation”.

Ten years on from that report, there are additional nuances to take into account. One discussed in our cover story is the emergence of private investors buying up individual researchers’ future IP rights.

In countries such as Sweden, which traditionally have allowed staff to retain all IP rights (under a system known as the “professor’s privilege”), this can have a significant impact, effectively giving a commercial third party control over the fruits of research without a full understanding of what that might mean.

It could, for example, mean killing off promising ideas that pose a competitive threat to another commercial interest, or could interfere with future collaboration opportunities.

With this in mind, says Lisa Ericsson, founder and head of KTH Innovation at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, it is vital that universities provide appropriate advice and support, and that researchers use it.

Beyond that, one of the overarching lessons from talking to some of the most successful researchers turned innovators and entrepreneurs is that the greatest value universities bring to the innovation ecosystem is – as ever – their unrivalled and irreplaceable role in supporting basic research.

Without that foundation, there is no commercialisation, no application.

As Hagan Bailey, co-founder of the multibillion-pound DNA sequencing business Oxford Nanopore, tells us: “We can facilitate commercialisation, but only if there is new science to commercialise.”

Curious, well-funded scientists are the foundations of the best research, but they are also what is needed if any country has ambitions to produce unicorns alongside papers in Science and Nature.


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