The Industrial Strategy Green Paper (2017) highlighted that whilst the UK ranks first in many key global measures of research quality; in terms of intellectual property income generated against research resources and the number of successful spin-off companies the UK performs far behind US institutions.
Research (led by Professor Simon Collinson) from the University of Birmingham’s City REDI institute looks at the long-term, systemic problem of the UK university-industry gap which limits the adoption and diffusion of new technologies.
By looking at a range of case studies, across medtech, rail, quantum technology and energy, some key commonalities came through, highlighting a range of factors that affect the commercialisation process. These include: the disconnect between academic goals and technology commercialisation activities; regulation; and gaps in seed funding and investment. It is important that these potential barriers are considered at the start of any commercialisation process, so that they can be appropriately managed.
Some of the key outcomes and recommendations are below.
- Academics good at research may not be good at business. They have other incentives and key performance indicators. So although some might be connected commercially, they normally do not have a remit or incentives to deliver commercial success. For academics, research funding is often seen as a key outcome, rather than an input to create something that adds value elsewhere.
It is worth noting that success at technology commercialisation (in the context of REF) has recently, been very helpful to three University of Birmingham academics when they applied for/were considered for promotion to Professor.
- Commercialisation of university technology is rarely a linear process; there are ‘swerves’ (you start out going in one direction but as it matures, the market directs you somewhere a little different) and feedback loops at every decision-making stage-gate. However, a strategic portfolio view should be taken to assess the relative probability of success, costs, benefits and timescales, within and across different technologies and sectors to optimise resource-allocation. This research highlighted a number of lessons on how university stage-gates could be organised more effectively to leverage the portfolio of technology projects in play at any one time.
- There is a distinction between funding (grants from Research Councils, charitable bodies) and investment (business angels, venture capital) both of which can be used to fund product development trials. Funding is more common than investment in the early stages of development where the market opportunity is very specific and potentially limited (investment is hard to attract at the earlier stages). There needs to be different approaches in targeting funding and investment.
- The stakeholders which determine the funding environment, culture and regulations vary between industry sectors, influencing the selection processes and outcomes differently. This has important implications for the ways in which universities standardise / vary R&D policies and incentives for different faculty disciplines or departments and manage external partner relations. Customised approaches by staff are needed to effectively navigate these. Users, regulators and funders all influence the pathway to commercialisation.
- Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) continues to be a useful tool to help keep track of progress through the commercialisation pathway. The research also identified ‘manufacturing’ and ‘supply chain’ readiness levels as being important and central to the successful market adoption and diffusion of university technologies.
- Universities should build relationships with market players (large or smallmedium sized enterprises) and other institutions as early in the process as possible. This may present opportunities such as being able to scale-up research through already existing enterprises.
- A successful partnership between an academic team and the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) team is required if the technology is ever to leave the University to be further developed. Neither can be successful without the other.
At the University of Birmingham, many researchers who engage with TTO’s say that their research is enriched as a result. UoB Enterprise also has a clear set of questions in relation to determining whether there is a rationale to spin out new companies.
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