Improving universities’ tech transfer ‘is not about cold-calling’

Fledgling company reaches out to the US sector to help broker university and industry collaboration

September 17, 2015
Twenty men on tandem, New Milton, England
Source: Getty
Moving things along: IN-PART boasts a 70 per cent success rate in linking universities with companies. The start-up says some campuses lack the ‘integral interaction’ with industry

Dame Ann Dowling’s landmark report this year into university-industry collaborations highlighted the difficulties that the academy faces when commercialising the technologies forged deep in its laboratories.

But although many of the Dowling report’s proposals aimed at making it simpler for universities to tap into marketplaces have been welcomed by the sector, collaboration and commercialisation are still difficult.

IN-PART, a UK start-up set up just over 18 months ago that aims to better link universities with industry, is trying to change that.

Robin Knight, the company's co-founder and a former postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London, said that for a young academic, industry collaboration represents a “degree of the great unknown, but potentially a very attractive route to ensure your research has impact”. Certain universities, however, don’t have the “support structure to say: ‘when you have something new, this is what you do’” nor the “integral interaction” with industry.

“We found that industry couldn’t properly interact and see the research on display in universities because they had to navigate labyrinthine websites, and delve down 12 pages to see where the technologies actually were,” Dr Knight said, adding that the complexities of the system do not help.

The government should be making it easier for universities to know how best to interact with industry, he believed. “I went to the post-report debrief for the Dowling review and saw the very complex diagram they had drawn as to all the different routes one could go down as a university academic,” he said.

The strapline on IN-PART’s website, “Getting University Collaboration Opportunities to Industry”, is certainly to the point on what it is trying to achieve; a directness that the firm’s other co-founder, Patrick Speedie, said is crucial to its services.

“There’s a disenfranchisement between academics and industry and we felt that we had an effective approach of bringing them together,” said Mr Speedie. “We work with universities to pool together their latest collaborative opportunities: early stage projects right up to commercially worked-up technologies.”

But since there are numerous “technology intermediaries” out there, according to Mark Saulich, senior commercialisation manager at Northeastern University in Boston, which has just signed up for a pilot with IN-PART, what makes the firm different?

Moving away from cold-calling

Mr Speedie said that a major attraction was that IN-PART was dedicated to promoting university technologies among firms.

“We found out when we spoke to universities, that they’re often cold-calling companies. You’ve got people at PhD level who work in industry for some time trying to sell really complex, advanced materials, quite intricate [technologies]. They’re quite complicated things to sell over the phone so a warm introduction to relevant research and development contacts can be invaluable.

“The nuance within our system is that we keep it [a] closed loop – only R&D units are allowed in – there’s no noise whatsoever from [outside] audiences and it gets technologies to the relevant people quickly and simply. It’s a very exclusive audience.”

Although it is accepted that some collaborations between industry and universities may not be successful, IN-PART’s 70 per cent-plus success rate in linking universities with companies is encouraging, and, this week, the company launched its US pilot scheme with eight institutions – including three Ivy League universities. Overall, the firm has expanded its university portfolio from six institutions to almost 40 since its inception, including three in Asia.

Laurie Actman, chief operating officer of the Penn Center for Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania, said that joining up for the pilot represented “good marketing opportunities for our technologies”.

When asked whether it was strange that a university from the US – often regarded as a global leader in commercialising technologies – would sign up with a British start-up, Ms Actman said that it “didn’t matter”.

“We were just happy to really try out any credible platform for marketing some of our discoveries…especially the potential access for European-based companies in our sectors that are maybe harder for us to stay in close contact with,” she said.

“The industry has changed so much and is driven by a mix of factors, one of which is the drop in federal funding for basic research. That’s motivated everyone to be more creative and flexible in terms of how they fund research.

“More positively, more universities – including Penn – are finding that these partnerships are really beneficial because the right one can speed up the pace of innovation and commercialisation, help translate discoveries into the marketplace and deliver actual created products.

“Most of our faculty want to see their discoveries have impact in the world and not just be papers that sit on the shelf. A private-sector partner offers good insight into how business models could work, [promoting] the research in a way that can actually lead to product development.”

Mr Saulich agreed. “A lot of the research is based on government funding, but as that pool of money dries up, we’re now turning to industry to help fund some of those efforts,” he said. “For the past several years, we’ve averaged about $150 million (£98 million) in research funding and a large percentage comes from the federal government but, more and more, we’re trying to get that funding from industry and generating that revenue from industry.

“I’ve worked in tech transfer for about 15 years and I’ve got a good sense as to what works and why – at times, these intermediaries aren’t as successful as they could be. [However,] IN-PART is tapped into what the key variables [are] in successfully facilitating collaborations between industry and universities.”

Emma Brown, business development manager at the University of York – one of the early adopters of IN-PART – said that universities in the UK and abroad were becoming more attuned to the necessity of industry-university collaboration.

“I think because of the research excellence framework [the mindset is] much more embedded now,” she said.

“The five years leading up to the REF were a culture change and a shock to the system for people, but that’s here to stay in some form or other. The concept of knowledge transfer and exchange is much more embedded among the academics’ ethos and mindset. [But] if somebody could find the panacea for connecting industry with academia, please let me know!”

Mr Speedie said that IN-PART’s user base was still “65 per cent UK” but hopefully the overseas expansion will be its platform for a global presence.

“Certainly in the next 18 months, I see us being known as a go-to place for companies to view collaborative opportunities from universities, internationally,” he said. “About 100 universities will be research-intensive enough to use our system [in the UK]. I hope [in 18 months] that we’ll have 80 per cent of [that] market.”

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