Universities Challenged

At a time when UK Universities are facing “savage” spending cuts, making money from IP is going to be of growing important to universities strapped for cash. Not surprising then centres of research excellence want to promote themselves, the surprise is how different the approaches can be. First in late November 2010, The University of Glasgow announced it would offer IP it produced free to companies under its “Easy Access IP” program1, and then, not long after at the beginning of December 2010 Imperial Innovations, the commercialisation arm of Imperial College London announced it had raised £140million to “accelerate and increase investment” in spin off companies2.

Universities have always had a challenge when wanting to commercialise the result of research, particularly their forte: early stage research. Fundamental research is often not sufficiently ready when it leaves the university lab for incorporation into new products – its not market ready . Universities sensibly invest in patents for technical innovations but often lack the implementation know how to license with them to allow established companies to exploit the technology quickly. Technology licensing has therefore been a long standing challenge for universities, and though it can some times work for them, spin off or start up companies have become a popular alternative to licensing, and one that allows academics to take a personal stake in the development of the ideas: turning them from blue sky ideas to commercially viable products. Of course, start ups are an expensive, risk business, hence the need for level of funding that Imperial Innovations sought and, refreshingly, found.

And the University of Glasgow? Free IP? Not all research produces results to build new companies on. The University of Glasgow still has a commercial approach to exploiting its IP where it wants to. What it has done is recognise that some, perhaps even the bulk of its research wouldn’t suit the risk/reward profile for a start up, and might be difficult to sell as a technology licensing package, or a least the value obtainable might be so low as to make commercial licensing efforts unworthwhile. So, a radical alternative from The University of Glasgow, make IP available free as a socially responsible contribution to UK economic growth. Now that should help a universities case when looking for funding, even in a time of cuts. More than meets the eye then in “free IP”, and perhaps a new, more transparent, path for universities to close the loop and be visibly be seen to create economic value.