by Dr. Thierry Bontoux
What is the role of universities and public research institution in providing
technologies to the Industry? This is a question with many possible answers that
will never reach a consensus if in the first instance we don't consider who
Academics are, and what is their goal to achieve.
Academics/universities' remit is neither to carry out industrial research and
development, nor is it to understand the industrial outcomes of the research
they performed. They know better than anyone what are the scientific challenges
and answers their work provides, but barely get interested in the short and
financial profit they could get from commercialisation of their work. Some do,
but those ones are the exception. The vast majority of them are not the
entrepreneurs. Many of those I worked with were simply afraid by the idea of
dealing with industry, if not against the bare principle of doing so. However,
having said so, one could wonder why areas such as around Cambridge in the UK or
Stanford in the USA have spawned so many successful start-ups.
What happened on those two campus is certainly a combination of the
universities encouraging spin-outs combined with a pool of engineers ready to
jump from one high risk employer to another should their original company fold.
But is that second component associated with the university? Not beyond the fact
that universities might well have trained them. This "breed" of engineers has
little in common with the academics. Both constitute two distinct groups that
once put together are capable of the greatest industrial successes. Why? Because
they look to problems in very different manner. There is thus a way to let SMEs
and start-ups take advantage of technology and IP developed within universities;
a way not applicable only to Cambridge and Stanford.
Most universities have developed some processes to sell or licence their IP,
but they have done so in the most inefficient way considering the amount of
resources they have and the actual number of successful spin-outs emerging out
In my opinion, there are two reasons for this situation: 1) access to the IP
is practically only available to academics; and 2) technology transfer offices
are run by individuals with no real knowledge of venture and who in many cases
were never exposed to the reality of entrepreneurship. Why would they stay in
post if they were real entrepreneurs with all the potential that a university
can offers in terms of venture development?
The solution could be an alternative to the classic Spin-Out model namely a
Leak-Out system whereby either an internal or external entrepreneur could use
the universities facilities and funding for the purpose of generating a
marketable technology. It was felt in a recent survey I did on challenges facing
research in UK1 that more academics and start ups
would be prepared to take the risk if it was shared, along with the potential
wins on shared IP and revenues. In the case where this approach failed the IP
would still reside with the universities and they would be free to sell it on or
try to develop and market it with someone else.
A Leak-Out model has a lot of benefit for both the universities and the
1) it brings business competences the academic institution is lacking in
2) it reduces the financial risk for those willing to risk
themselves in a venture business. The university provides them a financial
support if not a salary; and
3) the universities will cut their costs by
investing in real entrepreneurs and thus maximising the number of potential
All over the world, universities are full of very bright people with a
fantastic understanding of science. They deserve an efficient technology
transfer system enabling them or others to bring their ideas out to the real
world. The Leak-Out system should allow this to happen because it relies on
individual competences and not only on Venture Capital backing.
1. UK Strategy for Nanotechnology (http://tbx-consulting.com/images/document/UK strategy for
Copyright AZoNano.com, Dr Thierry Bontoux (TBx Consulting