Universities make a vital and successful contribution to the wider economy in the UK; a national success story.
This was a point I made at a recent briefing event called Research Commercialisation in 2018 – Delivering Impact for Universities and Business; it is also one of the key messages made in a recent letter from the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) to the government.
But where the NCUB letter was calling on the Government to celebrate the many successful business-university interactions rather than focussing on weaknesses, I think those of us who work at the interface of academia and the private sector also need to do more to celebrate this success and to play an even more influential role in the economy.
Evidence shows that we are one of the best places in the world for university-business relations. According to the World Economic Forum, we are the sixth-best country in the world at university-industry interaction and second-best for the quality of our research institutions.
Some outside the knowledge exchange sector see university-business interaction largely in terms of licensing and the creation of spin-out companies. But while they are important, in fact they are a small portion of the overall knowledge exchange activity.
We should be celebrating the whole range of interactions between universities and business.
Our quarterly newsletter, Connections, showcases our work and commercial partnerships, shares learning, and identifies ways for staff, students and industry partners to get involved.
For example, the most recent Government survey to monitor business and community interaction indicated that only eight per cent of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) considered commercialisation (which is defined narrowly as licensing and spin-out company formation) as one of their top three most important areas of economic impact.
But a far greater proportion (46 per cent) cited research collaborations as being important, followed closely by knowledge exchange more generally (44 per cent) – both fundamental components of a successful university-business ecosystem.
So whilst we are rightly proud of the licensing deals we have completed – such as a recent high-profile agreement with Carrick Therapeutics and healthcare company BTG – the vast majority of our work is in collaboration agreements. We have concluded more than 140 agreements in the past year, many of which include a licence to develop promising results and build towards intellectual property that is jointly owned.
Some of these are large, complex agreements – like our strategic alliance with Merck and Cancer Research UK. Many are smaller-scale (such as recent agreements with High Force Research, Asana or Elekta), but add up to a lot of university-business interaction.
And whilst we are able to measure these partnerships in terms of agreements signed or income received, what we can’t measure are the numerous conversations our academic colleagues have with companies, and the sparks that these conversations may ignite within their own research.
It is also difficult to measure the economic benefit that may result from the numerous small pieces of consultancy work or contributions to advisory committees made by our scientists.
These types of interactions are hard to measure, but they are an important part of the picture and help to cement relationships between university academics and businesses that can lead to new alliances.
The measurement of knowledge exchange in all of its forms was the subject of an international summit of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) I attended recently, with participants from 19 different countries. And whilst we all acknowledged that measuring some of these interactions was difficult, that didn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate them.
In universities, celebrating the success of industry partnerships is a key part of building a commercialisation culture and encouraging newer researchers to try new interactions.
And as the government increases spending on R&D with the aim of reaching a spend level of 2.4 per cent of GDP, it is now more important than ever to celebrate our successes in all forms of commercialisation and keep building on these successes, to maintain the UK university sector as a major driver of our economy.
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