HEFCE has published a report from a group of university experts, chaired by Professor Trevor McMillan, the Vice-Chancellor of Keele, on the competitiveness of UK university technology transfer. HEFCE provided the secretariat to the review.
Our main impression from supporting the review is that technology transfer policy and practice is, necessarily, very complicated.
The main reasons why it is complicated? It involves a set of diverse and rare ‘ingredients’ that need to be mixed together precisely. The ingredients you need, and how you mix them, vary according to the specific technologies being exploited.
They also vary according to the environment for the mixing and ‘baking’ (exploitation in the market): the entrepreneurial conditions or ecosystems at and around the university.
The ingredients to successful technology transfer include high-quality research ideas that are suitable for exploitation and interest and aptitude of academics to be entrepreneurial.
Availability of venture funding, entrepreneurial mentors and advisers, technical and management skills, funding, and space for proof of concept and incubation are all important. As is professional technology transfer support, and encouraging leadership in universities.
Two examples of the differing policies needed in different sectors are human therapeutics and engineering software (though universities will be dealing with many more and different technologies).
Human therapeutics is all about fundamental research that is usually far too underdeveloped to get immediately to market. There is an established, long-term process, and agreed terms, to move toward exploitation. There is potential – sometimes – for high returns, but also a need for large-scale investment, which is hard to source.
In engineering software there are interested investors, and technologies can move quickly to market as capital needs are lower – though returns may also then be lower. In software, investors are likely to be as interested in the team behind the technology as the intellectual property.
Universities will need different policies and deal terms to exploit these two differing technologies successfully, and different capabilities and workload requirements of technology transfer staff.
In May I published a blog post on why ecosystems matter in technology transfer, and the leading examples in the USA of Stanford/Silicon Valley and MIT/Kendall Square.
Ecosystems specifically matter in the design of university policies for technology transfer because they influence the pro-activity needed from the university to source the ingredients to successful exploitation. With a developed ecosystem, policies and deal terms can be light touch, with the ecosystem carrying the load to take the technology to market.
UK universities are still on the journey to develop their ecosystems, and their policies are more pro-active, with consequences for their deal terms and their need to build up wider entrepreneurial capacity.
In its report the McMillan group presents extensive evidence to support its main conclusion that UK technology transfer practice is competitive against world standards.
The group concludes though that the UK does not thereby escape the need to devise and execute its own sophisticated policies for technology transfer. ‘One size fits all’ policies do not work. We cannot just copy those of MIT and Stanford.
Technology transfer can be fun, and rewarding to universities, academics and students – and to the UK as a knowledge economy. The group concludes that the UK, while successful, should not be complacent and should seek to do new things:
- Pay greater attention to the role that university leadership plays in successful technology transfer. That role includes providing clarity of purpose and approach in institutional policies for technology transfer. National funders and policy-makers could support this by improving evidence on the critical issue of ecosystems, and by bringing the voice of universities further into relevant national debates, such as around technology sectors or place and commercialisation. Attention is also needed to how to manage governance of the impact agenda.
- A greater focus on impact, such as in the Research Excellence Framework, has helped provide a supportive environment for academic entrepreneurship. Academic and student entrepreneurship will be diverse, and universities need to demonstrate better that they support such diverse aspirations appropriately.
- The UK benefits from a strong community of practice in technology transfer in PraxisUnico. That community should be supported to develop further – providing more help for less experienced or small-scale technology transfer units, supporting sector differentiated approaches and developing further their US, overseas and private sector links.
I intend to publish another blog post later in September on the extensive evidence base compiled for the review, and on the steps that HEFCE, working with universities, Universities UK and PraxisUnico, will take to engage wider stakeholders in the conclusions of the McMillan review and to implement key recommendations.