27 July 2009
Demolishing ivory towers
Have academics got the right balance between teaching and entrepreneurial activity?
There is a lingering view that universities are remote and elite institutions, focused on maintaining the status quo. But that image is increasingly one of the past. While there are some universities where the phrase 'ivory tower' could be applied with certainty, modern universities are becoming linked inextricably with industry.
Whether they do this by fostering particular relationship with technology companies or by spinning out their own companies is a matter of choice, but today's academic institution is more like a business than ever before – and the academics within these institutions are nothing like the dusty professors of yore.
Professor Chris Toumazou is executive director and chief scientist within Imperial College's Institute of Biomedical Engineering. But he's also a serial entrepreneur. Is he the model for the academic of the future?
"More than ever, we need a balance between the entrepreneur and the 'blue sky' academic. We will always need academics looking at what's going to happen in the next 10 years, but we also have a front line of very entrepreneurial academics who see the best of both worlds."
It's something that he sees as a 'British' thing. "The US doesn't understand it," he said. "They don't understand how we can use taxes to fund academic research. But the UK doesn't have the Harvard/MIT types of donation and the academics are making the university more valuable; building a base for the next generation."
How did Prof Toumazou evolve into this academic/entrepreneurial character?
"I started at Imperial in 1986 working on rf chips for mobile phones. At the time, it was a very important area and what was apparent from the university point of view was how much more innovation could be done when industry was fully involved. Since then, I have always been trying to be 'ahead of the game', because there is only a small window of opportunity in which to make a breakthrough."
Prof Toumazou is best known for his spin out company Toumaz Technology, which is focused on medical electronics. "I was approached around 1990 by a company which was developing electrode arrays for cochlear implants. Because of the low power electronics we'd developed for mobile phones, we created within a couple of years, one of the lowest power implants for 'born deaf' children."
He believes that if only a fraction of the technology developed by the semiconductor industry were to be applied to healthcare, then 'major innovations' could be made. "But it needs discipline hopping," he noted, "and the freedom to do that within a university environment."
Since then, Prof Toumazou has been involved in developing one of the largest medical schools in Europe; he called himself 'a chef mixing ingredients'.
"But it needed more than an engineer working with a medic. What was important was a management style that broke down silos. A multidisciplinary approach is very important and the previous Imperial rector, Sir Richard Sykes, was very much into it."
Prof Toumazou also sees university funding issues as a reason for this entrepreneurial approach. "Funding bodies are looking at where to put their money without losing it," he claimed. "Long gone are the days when you could get a grant for a small piece of work. Now, it's all about big teams working together."
But universities are not entirely blameless in this respect, because they see the value in the IP being created within their domain. "Universities can pull together the facilities where you can get people together to work on innovation. There's a lot more IP in multidisciplinary work and universities are becoming more protective about IP. Before going to industry, universities want to incubate the IP and get as much value as possible. In some cases, companies are being pushed away because universities want to hold on to their IP."
Even so, spin offs create value for universities Prof Toumazou believed. "Imperial has a major shareholding in Toumaz Technology and there's a pipeline between the company and the university. Value goes into the company and then into the university. If there's a return to the university, then it kills two birds with one stone."
Is the balance between entrepreneurial and academic activity right? "There is a problem when companies are spun out of universities," Prof Toumazou admitted, "and it's one of the things which we need to get right. Industry needs to work with spin outs, but the problem is compounded when spin outs try to do too much."
Does being balanced on the borders of academia and entrepreneurialism compromise how Prof Toumazou operates? "I enjoy innovation and there are a lot of professors out there with a similar outlook. And I believe I can get the idea of innovation across to students. Academics are often the best ambassadors for their technology."
He also believes that having one foot in the academic world is also important. "In terms of lecturing, it's very important and you can 'cherry pick' the best engineers to do PhDs. If they can work for the UK, that's good."
Getting students involved with spin offs is also a benefit. "Once they've had the experience of moving theory into practice, it can only help to improve their education. They need to see the benefit of what they are learning, rather than going off to the financial services sector," said Prof Toumazou.
Nevertheless, he sees teaching changing as a result of commercial influences. "Teaching is becoming more applied and everything that's happening is improving educational standards in universities. We can now start thinking more seriously about quality degree courses," he observed.
What are the 'big ticket' items which universities should be focusing on? "There are three big areas," Prof Toumazou believed. "Energy, the environment and healthcare. In all three areas, it's hard to get a critical mass of people." For its part, Imperial is focusing on renewable energy, climate change and synthetic biology. All will be big scale operations and that's how it'll be in the future: big schools looking at the big challenges."
Prof Toumazou has recently been appointed chair of the Royal Society panel awarding grants from the Theo Murphy Blue Skies Award. Grants will be made to those pursuing 'out of the box' thinking in science and basic research. "We mustn't neglect the fact that academics need free funding," Prof Toumazou said. "Where do they get funding when everything is oriented towards large scale issues? Einstein wouldn't have done anything with today's funding models," he concluded.