Why should academics commercialise research
Speaking to a room full of engineers — academics, postgrads
and PhD candidates — last week I ran through the ins and outs of why (and how)
they should commercialise and communicate their research. It was my first
public talk, invited as a keynote speaker to the Engineers Researcher Symposium
at the University of Sheffield, to share what I’d learnt in the five years
My take-home was that commercialisation and communication
lead to more relevant academic research that improves lives and provides solutions
to our global dilemmas.
By raising the profile of research, either through
commercialisation or communication, it allows academics to establish
relationships and build networks both within and outside their field.
Exchanging ideas and getting feedback encourages thinking in more practical
terms. And the resulting conversations can lead to collaborations that advance
research in ways that individual academics can’t alone.
As well as the big picture, I also outlined the duty that
academics have to give back to society in return for being funded by the
taxpayer. To this end, the UK research funding councils set up the Research
Excellence Framework (REF) in the mid-2000s. The REF ranks each university in
terms of the quality and impact of its research, accordingly allocating funding
and resources based upon the assessment.
The ‘impact’ measured in the REF is defined as “an effect
on, change, or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or
public services, health, the environment, or quality of life beyond academia”.
When the next REF takes place in 2021, the percentage of a university’s score
based upon their researcher’s impact will increase from 20% to 25%.
As I explained to the engineers, research commercialisation is one of the most direct ways they can ensure that their work has impact. But due to limitations in funding or resources, it’s often necessary to bring in an industry partner to help validate, scale-up and commercialise a discovery. This step between a breakthrough and a working prototype is often referred to as the ‘valley of death’ for innovation. Fortunately, it can be bridged by collaborating with industry.
The Technology Readiness Level scale, showing the need for
industry collaboration to get early-stage university research (TRL 1–3) to a
working prototype (TRL 4–7)
Take Bell Labs, for example, an industrial research and
development (R&D) company, now owned by Nokia but originally founded by
Alexander Graham Bell in the late-1800s. Through their history of collaborating
with universities, Bell Lab’s R&D teams are credited with the invention of
the world’s first lasers, transistors and solar cells, as well as satellite and
On the life sciences side of the equation, earlier this year
LifeArc, a British medical research charity, received £1-billion for a
licensing agreement they made with Merck. This deal was based upon early-stage
research conducted by LifeArc researchers (then the Medical Research Council)
that laid the foundations for a new cancer immunotherapy treatment, Keytruda,
which is now available on the market.
And through IN-PART, an online matchmaking platform for
university-industry collaboration (akin to a match.com for research
commercialisation), we’ve initiated over 5,000 new interactions between
academia and industry since the platform launched in 2014. The conversations
resulting from these interactions have led to everything from grant funding for
collaborative research, co-development projects, and testing new materials and
proprietary compounds, to product development, exclusive global licensing
deals, and long-term strategic partnerships.
While there are a variety of outcomes that can arise from
collaborations between industry and academia, I explained to the engineers that
if they’re working on a project that might have a potential real-world
application, there are two general starting points to commercialisation.
The tried and tested route is to start by speaking with the
university’s technology transfer (or research and innovation) office. They’ll
conduct an initial evaluation of the project and, if it presents a unique
solution on the market, will protect the intellectual property (IP) surrounding
the research with a patent. From there, the technology transfer office (TTO)
will provide support to commercialise the research, helping to find funding and
partners in industry for collaborative research and development. In some cases,
the TTO might ‘spin-out’ the technology into its own company.
The second route to commercialisation involves going it
alone. This returns greater rights and financial rewards but requires
independently protecting intellectual property (IP), setting up a business, and
negotiating collaborations and funding agreements with industry. Although, this
option isn’t available at every university as IP ownership policies vary across
jurisdictions and institutes.
There are pros and cons to both approaches and middle ground
between the two. As an early-career researcher, getting guidance from a
technology transfer professional who has dedicated their career to
commercialising research is probably not a bad place to start.
After my presentation, I got talking to the conference
organisers. We soon fell onto a question from the Q&A which comes up quite
often: what can be done to improve research commercialisation in the UK?
This was a question from researchers who’d spent years
grafting away to get published and to secure their next contract. If they’d
known about the opportunities opened-up by commercialisation, they said they
might have taken a different path. Instead, they’re now looking for work
outside of academia.
During the talk, more than half of the engineers in the room
indicated that they were working on a project with a potential commercial
application. However, only five to ten people raised their hand when I asked,
‘how many people knew the university had a technology transfer office?’ — most
of these were senior academics.
In conversation with the conference organisers, we discussed
what it might be like if university students were taught about how academic
research is funded and commercialised before they started as researchers. I
wondered if it might lead us to an entrepreneurial culture more like the USA,
where it’s been rumoured that entrepreneurs wait outside the windows at
Stanford University to pounce on ideas thrown out by researchers. We at least
agreed that if we could better shine a light on how science, engineering and
(increasingly) the social sciences are catalysts that drive the economy, it
might nurture a new generation of academics who think about the impact of their
research from the go.
Image credits: Vlad Tchompalov