Research commercialisation is an important part of driving innovation. It is a widely discussed topic in the UK today, especially with regards to the creation of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), the recent Rees report and the UK government’s wider R&D strategy. But how do we go about defining the realm of research commercialisation?

In its most commonly used sense, research commercialisation is directly associated with the exchange and transfer of knowledge between universities and the private sector or third sector, and ‘knowledge exchange and commercialisation’ activities are even brought under one umbrella as KEC, describing ‘a very broad range of activities to support collaborations between universities, businesses and the public sector’ (Universities UK, 2015). And yet, there seems to be no clear written consensus on what constitutes research commercialisation.

As of now, research commercialisation resembles a rather scarce pick’n’mix bag of meanings and measurable indicators that can be chosen to define it, while those picked most often tend to be the same very few flavours that seem to be most conveniently accessible.

A clear definition of research commercialisation may just pave the way for a well-informed string of metrics that can adequately measure the positive outputs as well as outcomes of commercialisation, its contribution to the drive for innovation and its impact on the UK economy at large. This does not mean a simple multiplication of metrics and data collection, but a well-rounded and thought-out choice of metrics that clearly define and give legitimacy to a remit of research commercialisation within the wider framework of knowledge exchange.

Create, commercialise, confuse

The term research commercialisation is often used interchangeably with knowledge exchange, knowledge transfer or technology transfer while at the same time more specifically reduced to the licencing of IP to existing companies and the creation of university spin-out companies (UK Parliament, 2017).

And while there are voices rightfully arguing that the KEF and knowledge exchange at large are not to be thought of as research commercialisation per se, the equalisation seems misplaced only because the term is being used rather liberally, while strangely tending to be incredibly restrictive at the same time. The latter becomes clear when looking at the variables used to measure commercialisation activity of universities.

In a report for HEFCE, PACEC (2012, in McMillan, 2016) identify four activities as commercialisation activities, namely licensed research, patenting, spin-out company and formed/run consultancy. The University of Bristol distinguishes between five types of research commercialisation: licensing, direct sale of products and services (including consulting), research collaboration, an open source route and assignment/sale. In addition to a selection of commercialisation activities one can freely choose from, a handful of metrics can be mixed and matched to measure the commercialisation performance of universities.

In the first KEF consultation, ‘research commercialisation & IP’ is one of seven indicator groups that constitute knowledge exchange (Research England, 2019). The indicators used to measure research commercialisation, and thus laying the boundaries for what constitutes it, are research resource (income) per spin-out, the average external investment per formal spin-out, and licensing and other IP income as a proportion of the research income – data provided by HE-BCI. Many issues have been raised with using these indicators (Research England, 2019), playing to the broader concern that they are inadequate to grasp the complexity of routes and steps involved in commercialisation and thus fall short of providing a clear, measurable picture of commercialisation performance.

Specifically, there is a stark focus on the analysis of university spin-outs as an approximation for the overall state of research commercialisation in the UK. This trend may largely be observable due to the data availability on spin-out activity. However, to many universities, this is not the preferred or logical mode of commercialisation. For social scientists, consultancy is the most important form of commercial activity, while patenting and spin-out formation are more significant in sciences, technology and engineering sectors (NCUB and CBR, 2016). Focussing on spin-outs as the sole measure of success in commercialisation for universities gives a distorted picture as universities need to pursue the most appropriate route to impact for the particular research.

The measures of success

When it comes to measuring commercialisation success, indicators have to be chosen wisely. While numbers of licences, patents and spin-outs created, as well as the revenue made from those, may indicate commercialisation activity and capability, none can truly measure successful commercialisation. A start-up can fail, a license can lead to nothing of value, and even license revenue can be earned without the firm bringing an invention to market or making a profit from it (Arundel et al, 2008). This is not to say that those metrics are not valuable. What it does show though is that it is difficult to paint a true picture of the state of research commercialisation coming out of universities, not only because of the more extensive difficulty to measure outcomes, but starting with the current dissonance in what constitutes research commercialisation.

In the myriad of reports written on knowledge exchange in general and on commercialisation of academic research more specifically, we can observe a trend to pick commercialisation activities – and indicators to measure those activities – relatively freely, to mix and match and shift the boundaries of its meaning. A clear definition to work with would make national and international comparability of performance easier, would finally set the distinction between research commercialisation and knowledge exchange, and could help to define a selection of adequate metrics to measure the true realm of research commercialisation activity and outcomes.