In 2016 I had the privilege of leading a review into good practice in university technology transfer. There were two fairly modest objectives for the work of the group at the time. First, to challenge some persistent and damaging views about university commercialisation. And second, to provide a stock of evidence and insights that could be used for the longer run, in recognition that some of these negative views had a tendency to reinvigorate on a regular basis.

It was pleasing therefore that the recent Independent Review of University Spinouts highlighted that it had made good use of that piece of work, and built upon its evidence.

In 2016 we needed to examine the validity of the comparison that was often made between Stanford and MIT commercialisation and leading-edge practice in the UK. To do this we worked closely with US counterparts, who both emphasised contextual differences of the two countries, but also readily acknowledged the strength of UK university technology transfer.

These contextual differences led us to explore the concept of the “ecosystem” – the entrepreneurial environment around the university that helps support and draw out commercial output and expertise. This is very prominent in the areas around Stanford and MIT i.e. in Silicon Valley and Kendall Square. We therefore specifically recommended that national agencies should support development of an improved evidence base on ecosystems, including novel financing, and that additional investment in pilots would be valuable.

The recommendations on evidence and piloting of ecosystems have remained important to developments in England since, and both have been pursued continuously and remained important.

I chaired the first allocations from the Research England Connecting Capability Fund that supported a number of initiatives in a collaborative approach to creating benefit from technology transfer. These projects took a variety of forms that were closely linked to local context with some, for example, involving the vigorous pursuit of the novel financing agenda, leading to the creation of Northern Gritstone and Midlands Mindforge.

The call to arms on evidence was taken forward by Professor Andrew Jones, now Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University, supported by Research England and using London as a prototype to understand the dynamics of ecosystems. Evidence included a study comparing US and UK leading ecosystems, drawing out that differences were matters of scale over performance. In order to achieve the density and scale of an ecosystem like Silicon Valley, the UK needs to increase the scale of its R&D, not just pay attention to its commercialisation practices. Evidence also included comparisons between UK and European leading ecosystems, which highlighted that there are important but different areas of good practice that we can learn from each other. Europe particularly admired our work on innovative finance models, while softer entrepreneurial skills developments in Europe were to be admired.

Our 2016 report also highlighted the need for strong leadership for technology transfer in universities and recognised the need for regular assessment of the performance of universities so that there is a continuous drive for improvement in relevant activities. To satisfy these, the Knowledge Exchange Framework was developed to provide a mechanism for the regular health checks of performance and the Knowledge Exchange Concordat is proving useful in giving knowledge exchange a higher profile with university leaders and provides a framework against which each university can set its own path to an improved performance in KE.

And this story is not over. Economic growth is an even more important agenda in this country now than ever. At the heart of the routes to delivering growth are many areas where universities can make a difference – in innovation, commercialisation, enterprise, and skills. Bringing together the key components for innovation-led growth – the ecosystem – is vitally important for communities around the country, and while the leadership of this may be from different organisations in different parts of the country and the approaches may vary, universities working with organisations in the public and private sector will be critical for success.

As I now come to the end of my formal championing role with Research England, it is clear that Research England will continue to promote the ecosystem agenda for innovation, including now with advice and support for a new CCF-RED programme from investors and international experts. The first priority topic for competition under the CCF-RED programme will be for ambitious ecosystem developments – a call for EOIs to apply for a share of £30m to support collaborations of universities and private commercial partners to catalyse and develop the surrounding commercialisation ecosystems in which they are embedded. These projects will support their ecosystems by taking significant steps to develop their maturity, building on and coalescing existing strengths to grow and accelerate the nation’s commercialisation capability.

This call will be the first in a series that Research England will run over the coming year, targeting key activity areas to identify and spread good commercialisation practice. Research England will publish more information on the UKRI Funding Finder in the coming weeks.