The theory is simple: universities offer to license technology to commercial licensees on standard terms and at no cost. Some argue that this is not a new approach – universities have been transferring knowledge for free for centuries. Recently, Glasgow University was the first university in the UK to announce an Easy Access IP project. Since then the Easy Access Innovation Partnership, comprising Glasgow, Kings College and Bristol University, has won support from UK IPO to the tune of £80,000 to be used to explore the principles further.
Those involved openly describe this as an experiment. You get the sense that the wider university community (and probably a good few early stage investors) is watching and waiting to see what happens next.
While I think that the technology transfer market could do with some new business models (the IP Exchange that I blogged about a few weeks ago, for example), I am not yet convinced by the Easy Access model. Others are all in favour of it and I daresay that at least one of them will push back on the points I am about to make. My reservations are as follows:
“Universities are slow and difficult to deal with”
The Easy Access model is cited as a response to the frequent criticism that universities are difficult to do business with – in particular, that they are slow to take decisions and they insist on inappropriate terms. Glasgow addresses this by using a non-negotiable single page licence (which as a risk averse lawyer leaves me quivering at the hazards that are not addressed) and does not require the recipient to make any payment.
I take issue with universities being difficult to deal with. Universities have different priorities and interests to companies and so what is inappropriate in a company’s eye is necessary to a university. In my experience universities are just as flexible and responsive, if not more so, than many big companies. Leaving that aside, if a university’s internal processes are too slow for a commercial company’s liking, it seems to me that the solution is to revise the internal processes. I do not see how giving some IP away will help. Not all of Glasgow’s IP will be available under the Easy Access IP scheme. Companies will still need to negotiate over and pay for IP that the university identifies as having strong commercial potential.
“Universities always over value their technology”
The first, possibly flippant, response is that surely any prospective purchaser will always argue that the seller is offering the item for sale at an inflated price?
The second comment is that few people can accurately value the sort of early stage IP that universities are looking to commercialise. There simply isn’t enough information available. So, I don’t see why universities should be criticised for this. The university’s assessment is often no more or less valid than anyone else’s. And if the prospective purchaser disagrees, they are entitled to challenge the assessment.
That said, I do accept that a university’s expectations can be unrealistically high. Again, the solution to this lies in the university’s own hands and even some cursory research into similar markets should revise expectations. And, again, I do not accept that the solution is to offer to provide the IP for free. That smacks to me more of admitting defeat and not even trying to reach a solution. Solutions are available. Markets are adept at deciding value – by auction for example.
Does the Easy Access model save the university time or internal resource? I hope not. If the university is to manage risk, due diligence still needs to be done even if it is on a light touch basis. There will be some filter in place to decide whether the university thinks that the IP has any commercial prospects and so whether it is a candidate for the Easy Access model. There should be a further filter to check (for example) whether any of the funding that has supported the development of the IP came with conditions that would restrict the future use of the IP.
True, the model licence that Glasgow uses is simple and only a page long. But the obvious risk (for the university) is that potential pitfalls are not clearly addressed and opportunities missed.
One thing is clear. The Glasgow licence does not impose any financial obligations, but it is not a free licence. It does impose obligations onto the recipient. If the recipient does not take steps to use the IP, Glasgow can reclaim it. In fact, the Easy Access licence looks more like an option agreement that allows the recipient to evaluate the IP (for free) over a period of three years. Seen in that light, the Easy Access model risks actually restricting the technology transfer process.
I could go on but this is a blog, not a book. Anyway, I am sure that someone will tell me I am wrong. For now, suffice to say that I am all in favour of the introduction of new models to the technology transfer marketplace but I see the Easy Access model as an early stage experiment. It is an experiment that at worst will not work and that (at best) will highlight a long list of issues that need to be addressed.
As if by magic, see here for a discussion in defence of Easy Access posted after this entry was written.