At the same time as the US President came to the UK, HEFCE hosted a visit from another American.  Probably the most famous woman in the world of university technology venturing, Dr Kathy Ku is the head of Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing (OTL).

Dr Ku visited us to share insights with UK experts, making time to visit Cambridge University to compare and contrast the experiences of Silicon Valley and Silicon Fen. She also gave a seminar to UK policy makers to improve understanding here of US technology transfer, and to discuss what lessons we might learn for UK practice.

Dr Ku’s visit forms part of a series bringing UK and overseas experts in knowledge exchange together, and follows a much valued event with Dr Lita Nelson from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Our aim is to welcome European experts in the future.

This all forms part of the joint university/HEFCE work to develop a knowledge exchange framework, to support innovation and continuous improvement.

Dr Ku’s evidence is also feeding into a review of technology transfer practice, being chaired by Professor Trevor McMillan, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University.

No short cuts

What have we learnt from Dr Ku? I have written previously about advice from MIT and Stanford universities, reinforced by Kathy, that there are no short cuts or ‘one size fits all’ policies to create a Silicon Valley in the UK.

Technology transfer policies of any university need to reflect the university’s specific institutional characteristics and its surrounding eco-system. A university with cutting-edge strength in engineering will have a different approach to technology transfer from one strong in life sciences.

Most notably, MIT and Stanford have grown up with vibrant private sector eco-systems (Kendall Square and Silicon Valley). Both play the major part now in supporting university entrepreneurs and exploiting new technologies.

UK universities should have different technology transfer policies to those of Stanford. (And I shall have more to say about one domestic technology transfer innovation – patient capital – next week.)

Stanford is special

Second, we were sensitised to the unique characteristics of Stanford, which have shaped its approach to commercialisation.

Stanford is a relatively young university, founded at the end of the 19th century by the Stanford family, who left the university an enormous – 8,000+ acres – estate. Stanford’s nickname now is The Farm, and its massive estate has enabled it to accommodate entrepreneurial alumni nearby, beginning in the 1930s with Hewlett and Packard, often regarded as a founding milestone of Silicon Valley.

Above all Stanford’s research capacity dwarfs any UK university, which in turn feeds into the scale of its commercialisation activity.

Stanford’s proudest achievement is the 21 current Nobel prize-winners on campus. It has a total annual budget of £3.5 billion with only 7,000 undergraduate students (compared to Oxford University, with a £1.4 billion budget and 11,603 undergraduates).

As with many US-UK comparisons, we need to understand the differences of scale between the two countries. The American university system is really comparable to the whole of Europe.

The diversity of US universities

Third, we began to understand the diversity of US universities in the context of the roles they play in American economic development. Stanford plays a distinctive role in the American innovation system.

Most surprisingly, we learnt from Kathy that established, large businesses are rarely interested in Stanford technology. Most of its technology is ‘disruptive’ – so ahead of its time that no industry exists to exploit it, and indeed it may threaten the existence of some industries through changing the market entirely.

It is also highly risky: two thirds of Stanford’s £1.2 billion commercialisation income to date has come from only three out of the 10,000 technologies that OTL has licensed over its approximately 30-year existence.

Stanford is all about the power of an extraordinary concentration of fundamental research, working with a start up/small business eco-system.

This is extremely rare even in the US system (UC Berkley nearby in the Valley has not created similar impact), and there are many more and different models across America of university contributions to national and local innovation. In discussion with Kathy, we touched on Georgia Tech University as a model for regional innovation through working with local, large industry and the state government.

‘Build the eco-system and it will grow’

Finally, we learnt that Stanford’s entrepreneurial success has been almost wholly achieved without US Federal or State government assistance.

Dr Ku encouraged UK policy makers to appreciate the successes of UK technology transfer, alongside those of America, and to work to support our technology transfer. But she encouraged us to understand that ‘each university has a unique culture and we should celebrate that’.

Above all Kathy inspired us with her relentless optimism about technology transfer ‘build the eco-system and it will grow’ was her take away.