The international sisterhood of technology transfer

I benefitted enormously today from attending an expert seminar in London given by Dr Lita Nelson, the head of the Technology Licensing Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). UK universities are highly internationalised, and this helps them to seek out leading-edge figures from around the world to share good practice.

At HEFCE, we want to learn from the best. Working with UK universities, we are bringing experts in university tech transfer from the USA, such as from Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to the UK, to give masterclasses here for policymakers and practitioners.

All over the globe people admire the success of MIT and the high-tech area around it in Boston, as well as Silicon Valley and the university at its heart, Stanford. We associate Silicon Valley and Stanford with giants of information and computing technology, such as Google (started by postgraduate students at Stanford), as well as with newer biotech developments, such as development of Recombinant DNA that underpins important healthcare inventions tackling diabetes, anaemia, heart attacks and growth defects.

‘Don’t do what we do’

In the 2014 Science and Innovation Strategy, the Government asked us to develop a knowledge exchange framework to further the culture of continuous improvement in universities, and to ensure that we use public funding for KE efficiently and effectively.

Universities are responsible for proper management of their KE, including owning and exploiting intellectual property, so we are working closely with HE stakeholders, Universities UK, AURIL and Praxisunico, on the framework, as well as other funders.  As part of the KE framework programme, we have established the McMillan group on tech transfer, and now are increasing work on overseas good practice share.

What have we learnt so far from listening to the exemplars of tech transfer from overseas? One very strong, but apparently counter-intuitive, message has come from experts at Stanford – ‘do not do what we do’.

Stanford’s approach to tech transfer has been shaped by the characteristics of the university and of its eco-system. Academics and students who are interested in tech entrepreneurship self-select to go to Stanford to work and study. And Silicon Valley creates a vast array of opportunities and support for entrepreneurship of all sorts.

Actually, Stanford University itself has to do very little to further this incredible wealth and dynamism of entrepreneurship (though it played a very important part in the historical development of the valley). The role of Stanford’s tech transfer office is largely to file patents on potentially exploitable technologies and market these to entrepreneurs, who are usually locally based.

Stanford thinks that its situation – the depth and breadth of entrepreneurship on its doorstep – is probably unique in the world, and so its practices are not appropriate to universities elsewhere.

A ‘sisterhood’ of universities

US experts, then, advise that we need to support UK universities to find their ‘sister’ universities to help share practice: universities with similar institutional characteristics and eco-systems or places, and who are doing innovative and interesting forms of tech transfer, knowledge exchange and the like.

A UK university in an area of the UK with low productivity might learn more from, say, Penn State University, which is located in a regeneration area, than from Stanford (see ‘The Higher Education Knowledge Exchange system in the United States‘).

Of course, good practice in KE is not limited to US universities. Indeed, UK universities have both strong track record and innovative practices of their own that are admired overseas.

A 2014 MIT study examined internationally renowned innovation-strong universities that had helped generate entrepreneurial eco-systems around them. While MIT and Stanford were considered leading-edge globally, three UK universities came in the top ten worldwide, ranked by global innovation experts.

The MIT study also flagged fascinating examples of universities with a lot to teach us, from beyond USA – such as Aalto University in Finland, Tomsk State University in Russia or the Technical University Munich.

We look forward to working with university KE stakeholder bodies, UK universities and partners overseas, to take forward the notion of a ‘sisterhood’ of technology transfer, and knowledge exchange, inspired by our valuable family members from the far west and near east coasts of America.

To achieve this, we will continue to deepen our evidence on overseas systems, explore international benchmarking approaches and support and welcome cross-country visits and events.