Photograph taken by Mr Patrick Wollner

Effective university-business interactions and mechanisms for the exchange of knowledge, intellectual property, technology and trained people are essential to promote innovation and economic growth. Understanding how these mechanisms can be improved in order to maximise academic impact on the economy is a subject particularly high on the UK Government agenda. There is no doubt that the transfer of technology and intellectual property between universities and businesses is important. However, one could argue that facilitating effective networks and knowledge exchange between both sectors might even have a greater impact on the country’s development. This issue was discussed extensively earlier this month at a debate entitled “From Lab to Market?“, organised by the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE) and kindly supported by ideaSpace, Cambridge Innovation Forum, MedImmune, Healx3 and the Centre for Science and Policy.

“Students and young researchers are an absolutely vital part of the agenda; they are our future. Cambridge at this time is a thriving hotbed of ideas, technology and talent.” – Alice Frost, HEFCE.

The CUSPE event drew a large and engaged audience and an outstanding panel of speakers:- Andy Richards (Serial Bio-Entrepreneur and Angel Investor), Ms Alice Frost (Head of Knowledge Exchange and Skills Policy, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)), Mr Stephen Allott (Crown Representative for SMEs, Cabinet Office) and Ms Kelsey Lynn (Director of Tech Ventures, Imperial Innovations).

Ms Lynn outlined the multiple steps, drivers and challenges involved in the commercialisation of academic discoveries. She also discussed the role of technology transfer offices and funding models for university spinouts.

Mr Allott addressed the pathways leading to academic impact. He argued that the key question shouldn’t be ‘How do we best commercialise academic findings?’, but rather ‘How best to maximise the impact of scientific research on the economy’. Mr Allott’s thesis can be found in more detail in “From Science to Growth”.

“Two things struck me from this very engaging and valuable CUSPE event.  First that students and young researchers are an absolutely vital part of the agenda; they are our future. And second, that Cambridge at this time is a thriving hotbed of ideas, technology and talent. I shall visit again.” – Ms Alice Frost, Head of Knowledge Exchange and Skills Policy, HEFCE

Ms Frost provided a HEFCE perspective on the topic, emphasising the role of networks in both maximising academic impact and promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

“This was a most interesting event with a diverse and engaged audience. In our knowledge economy both Knowledge Exchange and Innovation Networks are strategically significant topics that are too often handled in a dry academic or facile and unsatisfactory way. I welcome the sophistication of debate that the CUSPE discussion has stimulated and I look forward to it continuing in the same vein.” – Dr Andy Richards, Serial Bio-Entrepreneur and Angel Investor.

Finally, Dr Richards outlined the normally accepted model for technology development from lab to market, which is often thought of as being static and linear. In reality, he believes this process is highly dynamic and complex, characterised by many feedback loops between both sectors. He also stressed the importance of social capital, networks and individual risk for the creation of healthy cluster growth and dynamics.

“This was a most interesting event with a diverse and engaged audience.” – Dr Andy Richards.

The talks were followed by an active round of Q&A, a networking reception and a roundtable discussion. The format for the roundtable discussion allowed ten carefully selected junior members of the Cambridge Cluster to challenge ten high level senior invitees, including the speakers, on the lecture’s topic, in a lively two-hour debate over a formal dinner. The diverse mix of participants at the dinner represented the following organisations: CUSPE; Cambridge Innovation Forum; Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club (CUTEC); ideaSpace; Cambridge Enterprise; the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP); the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (CSTI); RAND; the Cabinet Office; Imperial Innovations; SROne; and some of the finest Cambridge entrepreneurs. As emphasised by some of the speakers in their addresses, such networking opportunities are an important element of the process to ensure efficient knowledge exchange and fruitful collaborations. Within the Cambridge Cluster, they enable members of all seniority levels to come together, thereby connecting students, early career professionals and senior members from different sectors.

In summary, the high profile speakers provided fascinating insights on university-business interactions and pathways to academic impact and commercialisation. Focusing on maximising academic impact rather than commercialisation of academic discoveries was a recurring theme. The strength of the multiple Cambridge networks was reflected by the diversity and enthusiasm of the participants, who included a cross-section of members of academia, business and government together. Surely, given the frequent stress by speakers of the importance of social capital and networks to promote effective knowledge exchange and innovation, events such as these are self-propagating!

More detailed information on the content of the lecture can be found on the following blog post. For those who wish to read more about the event’s topic, the following report could be of interest: ‘Insights Into University-Industry Interactions from the Cambridge Biomedical Cluster‘.

Tim Guilliams is the Founder and CEO of Healx3, a Cambridge-based company. He is also the Director of Knowledge Exchange at Cambridge Innovation Forum, the Co-Founder of the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE) and a Junior Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). You can follow him on Twitter @timguilliams.