Sometimes a great notion won't be a nice little earner

MPs told that universities can’t always take their IP straight to the bank. Elizabeth Gibney reports

December 20, 2012

The belief that universities can make substantial amounts of money from their intellectual property is misplaced, MPs have been told.

Speaking on 4 December at a parliamentary round table on university-business collaboration, Geoff Rodgers, pro vice-chancellor for research at Brunel University, said that institutions had “spent a long time believing we were going to make our fortunes from commercialising our IP, and spent a certain amount of money trying to make it happen”.

“One or two may have done so in the past and one or two may do in the future, but generally…it’s [now] about the IP being used to lubricate partnerships and develop mutual benefit,” he told the event organised by parliamentary communications firm Dods.

Graham Galbraith, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, agreed that a more open approach to IP was beneficial, adding that the university sector had been “too protective” in the past.

Speaking to MPs including Adrian Bailey, chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, and shadow BIS minister Chi Onwurah, Professor Galbraith welcomed the University of Glasgow-led scheme Easy Access IP, whereby universities give away IP that they cannot sell or license.

“That led the sector in thinking differently about the IP sitting there unexploited,” Professor Galbraith said. Such openness helped to achieve universities’ aim of “the continuing of funds to…develop new ideas”, he added.

Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham, added that Easy Access IP members such as Birmingham found that the collaboration helped to draw companies into deeper relationships with universities. But he added that as charities, universities were bound by law to protect their assets and would continue to license IP.

Recent data indicate that despite universities’ efforts to develop technology transfer offices, little progress has been made in attracting significant income from IP or the licensing of the products of research.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Higher Education - Business and Community Interaction Survey 2010-11 shows that income from IP and shares of sales in spin-off companies was around £69 million in 2010-11 - a fraction of the £3.3 billion produced from university-business interaction in total.

The round table was part of the Dods University Innovators Guide, a policy forum on efforts to encourage business to invest in UK research and development. It came ahead of an announcement this week that the government will introduce a series of measures to strengthen IP, including a “superfast” patenting process.

Meanwhile, a survey of 101 MPs carried out by Dods prior to the event found that all three major parties agreed that higher education institutions should raise money from collaboration with business. But they differed in their views of what constituted the biggest obstacles to collaboration. While 44 per cent of Labour MPs saw funding and financial concerns as by far the biggest, only 10 per cent of Liberal Democrats and 23 per cent of Conservative MPs agreed.

Roughly equal numbers of Tory MPs saw “lack of interest” and “concern about what could be achieved through partnerships” as the biggest obstacles.

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