10 May 2011
Getting technology out of universities and into the hands of those who can develop it
The popular view of a university researcher is probably the 'mad professor', closeted in a laboratory, whose work is punctuated with small explosions and occasional cries of 'Eureka'. While that may have once been the case, university researchers today are more in tune with the needs of industry.
Martyn Buxton-Hoare, pictured, assistant director of Research and Enterprise Support at the University of Surrey, said things have changed dramatically since the introduction, some 10 years ago, of the Higher Education Innovation Fund, or HEIF; a scheme designed to encourage knowledge transfer in universities.
But he believes the approach was based on a mistaken view of the value of commercialisation in US universities. "Over time, it has become apparent that commercialisation, by itself, is useful, but is not a method of funding. What has also become apparent is the activity has other benefits; including gaining research contracts and improving a university's image."
Isis Innovation, the technology transfer arm of Oxford University, not only commercialises research, it also commercialises knowledge and provides consulting services.
Rakesh Roshan, a project team manager, said Isis gets involved when the academic thinks the time is right. "We work with them, making them aware of the opportunities," Roshan noted. "Most projects are triggered by academics looking to publish. We review their papers and do a commercial evaluation to see if there is something that could be patented. After this, the academic is free to publish. We will then work with the researcher to see how their ideas can be taken to market."
Malcolm Grimshaw, head of physical sciences at Cambridge Enterprise, said: "About nine years ago, the Government started putting more money into commercialisation and a lot of things started happening."
Until recently, there were three organisations in the university, offering patenting/licensing services, seed funding and advice. "We merged the three into one body a few years ago to form Cambridge Enterprise. It's a wholly owned subsidiary of the university, which gives us flexibility."
Grimshaw said the main driver for Cambridge Enterprise is getting technology out of the university for the benefit of society, while getting a fair return. "Sometimes, it's about maximising revenue; sometimes, it's just about getting technology 'out there'."
Buxton-Hoare believes there is a misconception about the type of research work done in universities. "University research doesn't always result in something that can be used immediately. Taking it to the point where industry can begin to get an idea of what the benefits might be and quantifying them – even whether it fits their business – takes money. It's a 'valley of death'."
Roshan noted: "Academics push boundaries, but it's early stage work and a lot of development is required. This means we need to work with companies who can take that work forward."
One way in which Buxton-Hoare's 'valley of death' is being bridged is by the recently introduced Knowledge Transfer Account (KTA), 12 of which have been set up by the EPSRC and Surrey is running one.
"There are a number of knowledge transfer activities," Buxton-Hoare pointed out. "Proof of concept is one and not every company can afford this."
He noted that most UK companies are SMEs. "They concentrate on the short term and don't have funds for speculative research. They tend to start funding when they are clear what the risks are and how the technology fits their business."
Surrey's KTA is getting £3.9million over three years. "This has allowed us to move 30 projects forward which wouldn't have got funding from anywhere," he noted. "By spending small amounts – up to £40,000 – we can determine whether the technology is special or not, and these are sums that SMEs can't afford."
Buxton-Hoare believes KTA approach is one of the best things the EPRSC has set up. "It enables us to approach companies and ask for contributions in kind; it gets us through their doors. Their first reaction is often that we are after money; all we want is advice on what to do with a research project and how to keep it on the right track."
He gave as an example a Surrey academic's development of an analytical system thought to be of use in drug discovery. "We took it to a large pharmaceutical company and the reception we got was more open because we were not asking for money. But the advice we got was invaluable; without it, we would have gone down a useful, but not groundbreaking, track. It pushed the academic to address something that was a roadblock in their process."
While many companies are interested in new technologies, Buxton-Hoare said they won't be really interested unless the research addresses the bottlenecks they perceive.
"Many academics know broadly what the problems are, but not the key problem. Research proves something can be done, but not what the limits of performance may be. KTAs help us to put those boundaries in place."
In Grimshaw's opinion: "The really good stuff comes out of basic research, where academics aren't thinking about commercialisation."
How does Cambridge Enterprise develop relationships with academics? "We will go into the various departments and tell them what we do," said Grimshaw. "In fact, we have 'champions' in each department who spread the word. We also develop close relationships with serial inventors and are working on having our people as part of the academic teams."
But he said Cambridge Enterprise isn't simply a 'patent filer'. "We also help them to think about the best way to get technology out." While single patents are important in areas such as pharmaceuticals and bioscience, they have little value in electronics, said Grimshaw. "The work in this case is more than simply being about a patent; it's about know how and collaborative research."
"There's a full spectrum of academics," he continued, "and you need to understand what drives them. A lot want to do basic research; others are concerned with applied research, but that needs industrial input, so establishments like CAPE – the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics – are invaluable."
Ashley Evans, chief executive of the Electronics Technology Network (ETN), said getting university research into the hands of small companies is 'the unresolved issue'.
"Academics and industry talk different languages," he contended. "Universities talk technology and science; business talks about applications. Bridging this gap is something the ETN is trying to do."
Evans also believes academia and business operate on different timescales. "Universities talk about five to 10 years, but SMEs won't be interested in something that doesn't bring a return in more than 12 to 15months. Often, it's better to use the Knowledge Transfer Partnership approach and transfer expertise into an SME."
The solution to Evans' unresolved question is the Knowledge Transfer Networks. "We can talk with universities, work out with them who potential customers are, then hook them up. We have spent a lot of time building our industrial networks and we can now start to think about linking those companies to universities who can help them."
On the back burner
University research is not always commercialised in the short term. "It took 23 years for Surrey Satellite Technology to develop significant revenue," said Buxton-Hoare. "A significant event was a five year research agreement with EADS Astrium to spend £5m on space engineering research. That allowed us to build our capacity and expertise. From a strategic point of view, that was more important than cash, allowing us to build space engineering capacity in SE England.
"Lots of companies are now feeding in, that's attracting Government sponsorship and we are linking with Harwell to create something larger. Without that contract, the space centre would still be relatively unknown."
This new focus on working more closely with industry has changed what goes on at Surrey. "Academics are more upbeat about what's done with their technology and on seeing that it has an effect. From the university's perspective, our standing with the research councils is enhanced as a result of generating commercial success from the money they supply," he said.
But is the prospect of commercial success turning the heads of academics in the wrong direction? "What has heartened and surprised me," said Buxton-Hoare, "is that academics aren't generally in it for the money; they're doing it because it helps their career and because they can see what they're doing has an effect. Most prefer to remain in academia; they're here because they want to be researchers."
And that is the university's culture. "The attitude here is to research and teach," Buxton-Hoare said. "Commercialisation isn't a substitute."
Teaching is the priority. "The quality of teaching affects the quality of research. If you have top quality researchers, that tends to generate a better quality of undergraduate. It's a virtuous circle."
Another Surrey success is Surrey Nanosystems, which has developed a low temperature method of growing carbon nanotubes on silicon. This has been spun out, brought back in house again, then spun out once more with £2.5m in cash and IP.
Technology doesn't always end up quite where you expect it. Originally developed as a way of doing optimisation maths for satellite control, a software system is making an impact in the computer games world. iKinema's software uses inverse kinematics to optimise the joint positions in computer games figures to make their movement appear more natural. "The program also has the ability to control robots," said Buxton-Hoare, "particularly snake arms with multiple joints."
Isis has, so far, set up around 70 companies. "The global success rate for start ups is 15%," Roshan noted. "Our success rate is 85%. Because we don't do start ups for the sake of it, we have to have a strong belief that the technology has something to offer."
"The philosophy at Cambridge Enterprise," said Grimshaw, "is 'why start a company if there's an existing one?'. It's a huge effort to set them up. Licensing may have a lower return, but there's more chance of getting technology into the public domain. But we do spin out when we can't find a company to take the work on. We'll also spin out if the team that wants to do that and we won't stand in their way."
Roshan said the conventional model of university research has changed. "Most big companies are shedding their R&D efforts, but still want to be innovative. They often do this by funding university research and we can be a front door for our researchers and those companies."
Electronics forms a part of Isis' commercialisation efforts. "We have a project on spintronics, which is trying to enable faster chips, and there's a project involving metamaterials which is developing was to transfer data and power wirelessly."
The latter project uses the recent discovery that artificial magnetic plasmas support magneto-inductive waves. This allows the local transfer of data and power without radiation losses. Amongst the benefits are: no wires or cables; no limits on the number of connected components; no connectors; and the ability to integrate the technology into desks, carpets and wallpapers, allowing data to be sent to any device in contact with these surfaces.
Roshan said the research pipeline in Oxford was 'almost limitless'. "There are around 4000 researchers and a pipeline like that will always be filled with interesting things."
"We're here because of the flow," Buxton-Hoare concluded. "We can add value to what goes on here, but we can't create it."