What do we know about technology transfer

The McMillan review of good practice in technology transfer (TT) was published on 1 September. So what does it tell us?

The US model

Nations have aligned around the US model, in which universities own intellectual property (IP). Alternative options of ownership by the Government or academic staff are not considered effective.

The main driver for this is increased interest in innovation systems worldwide: universities are in a stronger position to use their collective pool of IP to form collaborations of various sorts.

Evidence is less clear that maximising innovation always maximises academic engagement in entrepreneurship.


University practice in this area has reached very different states of maturity. The USA is most mature. Its activities go back to the early 20th century and predate formal changes in IP ownership in the 1980 Bayh Dole Act (where IP was previously owned by government departments, the Act conferred ownership on universities who were performing the research). UK universities have around 30 years’ experience.

France, Germany and Japan have made changes since 2000, to give universities responsibility for IP, and trialled ‘hub and spokes’ models, with a shared central service, for managing technology transfer in less mature systems.

Innovation and entrepreneurship objectives can conflict in these shared services. Some universities provide capacity to support their academics, in addition to the shared unit which is focussed on commercial, innovation objectives.

UK practices are comparable with the USA, and are at the leading-edge of Europe.


The USA and the UK do similar amounts of technology transfer. Both countries produced 1 patent for every £7 million of research resource in 2013-14. (UK-US comparisons need to be normalised to reflect the fact that US research universities have higher revenues compared with UK counterparts.)

Activity seems more concentrated in the UK than in the US. The top 10 per cent of US universities (by research expenditure) have around one third of total research spend and IP licensing income. The top 10 per cent of UK universities earn around two-thirds of research and licensing income.

Performance is highly skewed even among the top performers in both countries, but more markedly in the UK. The highest performer in the US top 10 per cent earns over 100 times more from IP than the lowest in the band. In the UK, the ratio is nearer to 250 times.

Many factors may affect differences in performance, but available evidence only shows a correlation between technology transfer performance and research volume.

The concentration of UK activity may be due to universities making careful decisions about whether it is worth their while to do technology transfer, given their capabilities. The numbers of UK universities and academics doing technology transfer has decreased over the last five years, likely due to reductions in funding, such as regional sources.

UK universities pursue a great range of knowledge exchange activities beyond technology transfer very successfully. They saw increases in total income from knowledge exchange reach over £4 billion in 2013-14.

Commercialising research

Research outputs with the potential to be turned into commercial value do not seem to have grown in the UK compared with indicators of success in effective technology transfer.

Patent applications have increased by around 150 per cent over the last decade, but most growth was in the first five years. Spin-out companies established have not grown systematically over the decade, with a peak in 2009-10 (though market conditions may affect this indicator).

But, over the decade, patents granted have more than doubled, spin-out companies still active after three years have increased by a factor of 1.4 and licensing and sales of shares income has grown around 170 per cent.

These sort of outputs may not have grown due to choices made by universities and academics to pursue other impact routes.

The type of technology exploited also affects policies and performance: engineering software will generate more companies, medical therapeutics will generate more external investment and income from shares.

UK activity focusses on life sciences. This is similar to the USA and worldwide, but more pronounced in the UK: UK universities produce 25 per cent of pharmaceutical sector patents here, compared with the 10-12 per cent global average. But it is UK engineering and physical sciences academics who are most interested in entrepreneurship.

The UK’s strengths and weakness compared with the USA reflect our economic conditions. The UK regularly outperforms the USA on numbers of spin-outs formed and the proportion of R&D income generated from industry. The USA outperforms the UK on licensing income, reflecting a much stronger base of commercial technology customers.

Measuring success

A very few research outputs with the potential to be turned into commercial value generate most of the success that we can measure. Only 0.05 per cent of US university licenses generate more than $1 million. Just 3 out of 10,000 new technologies commercialised by Stanford University over 30 years generated 67 per cent of the university’s licensing income.

MIT experts have criticised current metrics to compare successful entrepreneurial universities. Instead, they have devised worldwide rankings based on expert opinion.  While MIT and Stanford universities were ranked 1 and 2, UK universities held the next three places.