Our Universities Are Sitting on an IP Goldmine - a Gilt-Edged Apprenticeship - We Need a UK Maker Movement

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Next to the US, Britain possesses many of the finest universities in the world - a set of establishments far superior to that of any other European country. Their research output is remarkable. It represents a potential treasure trove of scientific and technical advances that is extremely valuable. If we are to succeed economically in the 21st century, we must improve at commercially exploiting all that brain power in our academic institutions.

Figures from funding body HEFCE suggest only six universities received intellectual property income in excess of pounds 4m in 2011/12. After the powerhouses of Oxford, Cambridge, King's and UCL comes the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), which I chair. It is dwarfed in scale by these giants of the higher educational world, with many fewer staff and facilities, and receives a fraction of the research funding they enjoy from government. Yet when it comes to making the most of the IP it generates, the ICR punches hugely above its weight. And next year I am confident our IP income stream will rise materially. In the medium term, there is a fair chance it could keep climbing, thanks to a pipeline of prospective cancer drugs second to no other academic research centre.

The profits that top US universities generate from their research activities show what is possible. In 2012, total income exceeded dollars 2.5bn, with underlying sales from licensed technology of dollars 37bn. Giants such as New York University make well over 10 times what our world-class universities earn from technology transfer.

I do not believe we lack intellectual resources: many of the finest minds in the world choose to come to Britain to work. History shows that we have always been a fantastically inventive nation. A recent edition of The Atlantic magazine listed the 50 greatest inventions since the wheel. By my reckoning, Britain accounted for at least 10 of them, from Newcomen's steam engine in 1712 to Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928. We just have to get better at directing our scholarship, and maximising royalties from it when the most-promising opportunities arise.

Perhaps the best apprenticeship any prospective entrepreneur can serve is to work as an executive assistant alongside a tycoon. Michael O'Leary was an assistant to Irish aviation pioneer Tony Ryan before being tasked with turning around an ailing little airline called Ryanair. Denis O'Brien, now Ireland's richest man and estimated to be worth dollars 4.5bn, was also an assistant to Ryan. And WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell learned many secrets at the feet of Mark McCormack, the legendary sport agent, and then retail titan Jimmy Gulliver. I did a stint as a gofer for Jonathan Aitken in the early 1980s: he was then involved in everything from chairing a bank to co-founding broadcaster TV-am. It was an interesting experience. …