Some readers may be aware that the British House of Commons has a Science and Technology Committee. Some of those readers may be aware that this committee is currently holding an enquiry that has the title “Managing Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer“. The enquiry has received both written and oral evidence, and is due to hear further oral evidence in December.
The enquiry appears to have been prompted partly by the publication of the Dowling Review. One paragraph in particular from its executive summary (how many people have read the full report?) seems to have caught the committee’s attention:
Universities have rightly become more aware of the importance of intellectual property and have significantly professionalised their knowledge exchange activities. However, there is a tension between the desire to earn short-term income from their IP and the need to deliver wider public benefit, and potentially greater long-term return on investment from this IP. The emphasis needs to shift towards the latter, and this must be reflected in technology transfer office funding models and success metrics. Notwithstanding the substantial work already undertaken to improve approaches to establishing contracts and IP agreements, this area remains a major source of frustration for both academics and businesses.
(emphasis added; only the bold text is quoted in the committee’s terms of reference)
See also paragraphs 110 to 125 of the main report. Let’s unpick what, in IP Draughts’ view, the highlighted parts of this paragraph are saying.
- Universities shouldn’t be so concerned about making money from their IP, as long as there is a benefit to [UK?] society from its commercialisation.
- Universities shouldn’t judge their technology transfer (TT) offices on whether they make a profit.
- Academics and businesses are frustrated by the behaviour of TT offices in requiring complex agreements that give too much financial benefit to the university and take too long to negotiate.
IP Draughts’ reactions to these assertions (as reformulated by him) are as follows:
- Sometimes yes, sometimes no. IP Draughts would like to see technology transfer opportunities routinely triaged into (a) those which are worth investing in, and having detailed agreements for; (b) those which are best licensed for free or low cost, with a simple agreement, under an “easy access” type of model; and (c) those for which no commercial opportunity is identified, which the inventor(s) should be allowed to deal with as they see fit, with minimal university involvement. We should also be careful to avoid equating the benefitting of society with the interests of one company. IP Draughts has heard the benefit-to-society point being used in negotiations by a company that wants more favourable terms.
- Agreed. It is pure chance whether a commercially valuable technology crosses the TT officer’s desk, and very few TT opportunities make a significant amount of money. IP Draughts said as much to the project team on the Dowling Review.
- IP Draughts is highly suspicious of comments of this kind. Academics sometimes behave very badly in siding with the company to put pressure on the TT office to accept the company’s preferred terms. Often, the frustration arises through the company not understanding the university’s objectives, which may be very different to those encountered in business-to-business agreements. In particular, the company may not understand the university’s needs to ensure public benefit and avoid legal risk. It is also true that, sometimes, universities are their own worst enemies, through failing to have a clear “bottom line” or a clear hierarchy and process of decision-making on legal and contractual issues. There is also the issue that companies are not neutral observers of the process: their “frustration” with the university’s approach in resisting the terms that the company proposes is aligned with their desire to achieve the best commercial outcome for the company.
Standing back from these issues, it seems to IP Draughts that there are human factors that need to be considered:
- Vice chancellors and their teams. Universities are primarily concerned with research and teaching, and TT activities take second place to these priorities. Senior management of universities tend to understand research and teaching and not to understand TT.
- Academic researchers. Academics tend to be concerned solely with their research and its funding, and not to be so concerned with the larger institutional interests of the university, including those which come into play when negotiating commercial contracts.
- TT and contracts staff. TT and research contracts offices tend not to have high status within the university, and their staff are sometimes thought of as support workers rather than leaders of the university.
- Business representatives. As mentioned earlier, companies sometimes lack understanding of the institutional, legal and other drivers of university behaviour. Often, it is not a case of the TT staff being “difficult”; rather, their behaviour is perfectly logical if you understand the context in which they are working.
So, what can be done to increase mutual understanding among the actors in TT, to raise the status of innovation and creativity as a discipline, so that it is no longer a “poor relation” of the university’s research and teaching activities, and to provide a focus for national policy initiatives in this field?
IP Draughts would like to suggest the formation of a Royal Academy of Innovation and Creativity (RAIC).
Royal or national academies are a tried-and-tested way of developing a discipline, encouraging professionalism, and promoting the discipline at a national level, all for the benefit of society. Their core activities seem to vary across disciplines. Some of the science-based academies have a strong focus on academic research (eg the Academy of Medical Sciences or the Royal Academy of Engineering). Some of the arts-based academies seem to be more like national conservatoires, focussed on excellence in teaching (eg the Royal Academy of Music).
Drawing on the common features of some national academies, IP Draughts would like to see a Royal Academy of Innovation and Creativity that (adapting the words of Wikipedia’s article on national academies):
- is a voluntary, non-profit body with which government has agreed to negotiate, and which may receive government financial support while retaining substantial independence.
- has a core membership of “fellows”. The fellowship is elected, on the basis of excellence, by existing fellows. The number of fellows is restricted either to a total number or to a rate of accretion.
- has a governance structure that is democratic and “bottom up”. The fellowship is the ultimate source of the academy’s authority.
One of the functions of national academies is to bring together diverse bodies representing different aspects of a discipline, with a single national body. In the case of UK TT activities, there are bodies representing parts of the community, from PraxisUnico/AURIL for university TT and research contracts managers, to the British Inventor’s Society for individual inventors, as well as scientific and professional organisations.
The RAIC would provide a national focus for policy, education, research and excellence within the fields of innovation and creativity. It would raise the status of innovation and creativity in the academic and business communities, and provide an authoritative voice when dealing with government. It would be cross-disciplinary, in the sense of including among its members eminent representatives of academia, industry, TT leaders, investors and, dare one suggest it, professional advisers.
For this initiative to get off the ground, suitable individuals would need to act as midwives and perhaps form the first batch of fellows. Possible candidates, if they are interested, might include:
Academia: Professor Anthony Finkelstein (UCL, and Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security), Professor Sir Tim Berners Lee (MIT)
Industrial inventors and creators: Jonathan Ive (Apple), James Dyson (Dyson)
Industrial managers: Sir Howard Stringer (Sony), Malcolm Skingle CBE (GSK)
TT community: Jeff Skinner (London Business School), Alison Campbell OBE (Knowledge Transfer Ireland)
No doubt, others can think of different names. Does this idea have legs? Should the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee be pushing it as a way of improving the development of national policy and mutual understanding in university/industry relations and technology transfer?