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 of them.
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 entrepreneurs:
1) it brings business competences the academic institution is lacking in general;
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 successful venture.
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 nanotechnology.pdf)
Copyright AZoNano.com, Dr Thierry Bontoux (TBx Consulting Ltd)
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