Research England, Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation (UCI): partnership for powerful data

As an important first milestone in our partnership, HESA launched a consultation last week on development of a national spinout register. Our proposals build on HESA’s review of the Higher Education – Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey, Research England’s knowledge exchange metrics programme and UCI’s evidence work on spinouts[1]. This addresses a recommendation of last year’s Independent Review of Spinouts.

Why is data on spinouts important?

First, spinning out companies from universities is an important policy topic in the UK and also around the globe. Spinouts are a vital part of the toolkit for unlocking value for the nation and society from high levels of public investment in research. Spinouts have also been exemplars of how universities and research can drive regional economic benefits.

Spinning out is an area of great debate across diverse stakeholders – governments, public funders, universities, researchers and founders and investors. High quality data to inform these debates and help align stakeholders is essential.

The independent review showed that spinning out is a UK success. Better data can help inform future investment cases, as well as give insights on how universities can improve and contribute even more to national success.

Why do we need more data – what for?

We have useful data and important cases studies already collected in the HE-BCI survey and RE reviews and UCI evidence work (including work published by NCUB as part of the Rees Review).

But we do not have a picture of the scale and breadth of spinouts from universities feeding into our economy and international developments, such as on vaccines or climate change. UCI work concluded that databases typically under-report university activity and hence success[2]. A better description of this intellectual asset base would be a powerful communication tool about the range and value of the university contribution, such as across different types of HE providers, disciplines and technologies.

The more granular data that we envisage will provide greater ability to analyse trends effectively and contextualise outliers that might inadvertently skew conclusions. This can help more robustly answer a series of key questions: How successful are our spinouts? How effective is our university systems’ performance? How effective is our wider national and regional ecosystem for spinning out, such as access to investors or accelerators? What drives success from both national policy developments (such as the recommendations of the spinouts review) and institutional practices? Is success actually driven, as one example, by equity stakes policies? Do national or place-based policies best address drivers of success for different technologies such as digital/software and life sciences?

For Research England, this work is part of our goal to move to outcome-based rather than income-based metrics in both the Knowledge Exchange Framework and Higher Education Innovation Funding.

Why now? What are the challenges?

This is an important time to put in place this better data as a baseline for delivery of the spinouts review.

But we also need to design data with care for the long-term, to understand trends over the time scales consistent with successful research and commercialisation.

Our quest for better data is balanced by our recognition that the burden of collection is a tax on the time and resources for doing research and commercialisation. This informs HESA’s care in consultation on issues such as what data needs to be collected annually versus a full stock take.

Underpinning our approach is the expert domain knowledge of UCI. UCI is playing a critical role in informing the terms of the work, so that we are talking the same language and have common understanding of data challenges with expert tech transfer practitioners.

UCI is also enabling our partnership to scope bold steps forward rather than incremental changes in existing surveys. This includes how we can build off the register through data-linking to produce existing complex data (such as investment raised by spinouts) without additional burden on universities. This could generate both higher quality and lower burden data.

As an example of current challenges – data included in the existing HE-BCI collection goes well beyond data held within the university, or easily accessible by them. This complex process of sourcing data can inevitably lead to inaccuracies due to burden of getting complete data and misunderstandings of data definitions along the chain of parties involved.

Our approach then fits with HESA’s overall objective of quality in official statistics and RE’s of describing the breadth of knowledge exchange in outcome metrics. We seek to address our shared concern on sector burden by drawing on UCI’s ingenuity in novel methods.

Next steps

We seek input particularly from universities and tech transfer practitioners to test our proposals. HESA’s consultation opened on 4th April, and closes 16th May – Consultation on changes to the HE-BCI survey | HESA.

[1] https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/uploads/UCI/knowledgehub/documents/2024_UCI_Spinning_out_success_FullReport.pdf

[2] https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/uploads/UCI/knowledgehub/documents/2019_Ulrichsen_Developing_University_Spinouts.pdf