UK’s lame knowledge transfer efforts need a leap forward
University technology transfer produces significant economic returns through substantial taxpayer funding. As such, it represents an important part of an advanced economy. Yet, while the UK has been talking about it forever, things don’t seem any more advanced than 10 years ago.
The UK has never fully implemented technology transfer, certainly not at the national level. Piecemeal, individual universities simply copied what they saw in the United States – or, at least, what they thought they saw. Like many imitations, however, looks aren’t enough. The inner workings matter.
The success of the United States has its roots in the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allowed universities to retain ownership of the intellectual property they create. There are many valid criticisms of the law, but it has led to the creation of a framework – not often talked about, but widely trusted – for the efficient conversion of academic results into assets and resources. useful business. The framework integrates all relevant stakeholders and establishes common standards, including modified grant terms, updated academic assessment measures, integrated funding programs, centers of excellence, and new legal standards.
By comparison, the stark reality is that technology transfer in the UK is akin to a pre-industrial cottage industry. The country has a few very successful institutions, but technology transfer functionality at many otherwise excellent universities is often lackluster. Great work is being done by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and others, but their efforts are always going to be difficult due to the disjointed ecosystem. Indeed, many of the challenges have already been identified in documents such as the 2008 report Innovation Nation report and the 2019 UKRI delivery plan.
But there is a hidden opportunity here, which is to use the “technology leap”. It is the delivery of modern technology in an area where the previous version has not yet been fully implemented. The UK can create a technology transfer framework based on the US experience but updated for the post-industrial era and tailored to the UK economy.
Five critical steps are required. The first is to implement a modern American-style framework for the commercialization of technology, with particular emphasis on the creation of new companies (“start-ups”).
Second, document templates must be properly established. Based on familiar samples, they should be used by all universities, especially in their interactions with companies. There have been some attempts in this direction, but it has not been widely adopted. For those worried about feasibility, the University of California is the largest university system in the world, but uses a standard list of document templates, which are readily accepted by businesses. Venture capital funds that invest in college spin-offs also value them highly. Familiarity reduces risk, which increases investment.
Next, the UK needs a fast tech license for eligible new start-ups or small businesses. It’s been going on for a few years in the most successful American institutions, with impressive results.
Tiered financing is also needed to support the early development of eligible businesses and to provide investment incentives. The UK is trying to reproduce the United States is very successful SBIR program, but was unable to replicate the same level of success. The critical aspect is that the US SBIR works in partnership with the technology transfer framework.
Finally, the UK needs to integrate government customers. There is no doubt that the NHS has technical challenges that require creative solutions, for example. If there is a tangible discovery that could fill the need, why not streamline the business development process? At the Ministry of Defence, the prosecution debacle of the Ajax armored vehicle program suggests that the military could potentially gain from playing a role in transferring technologies from the experimental stage to small businesses and then to wider use.
None of this is mysterious. The success of these measures in the United States suggests that their adoption will greatly increase the success of British efforts already underway. Domestically, jumping into a modern technology transfer and development ecosystem seems like an opportunity for Global Britain.
Chris Loryman is Senior Director of Innovation and Commercialization at the University of California, San Diego and previously managed intellectual property and technology transfer at several London universities.