Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Letting the Engine Idle

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Letting the Engine Idle

Article excerpt

The UK's research power is hampered by an inconsistent approach to intellectual property, says Sebastian Conran

The fact that new universities and science minister Greg Clark has retained his previous responsibility for cities and regional growth has been interpreted as further evidence of the government's conviction that universities can be an engine for economic growth.

But a trip this summer to California with a UK robotics delegation led by David Willetts, Clark's predecessor, convinced me that UK universities still have a long way to go to get that engine firing on all cylinders.

It is undisputed that UK science is world leading, but it is also a fact that Silicon Valley is generally more successful at commercialising the ideas and inventions created in Californian universities.

During a round-table discussion at the University of California San Diego, we learned that part of the reason is that there is a consistent approach in California to the handling of intellectual property, copyrights and patents created by students and researchers. And although Californian universities hold on to IP rights, they are obliged to make efforts to commercialise and protect them and, importantly, must share 35 per cent of the revenues with their inventor.

But it is not just about the IP rights culture. The team that created the technology is also expected to be instrumental in forming the company to exploit it, so that the expertise is maintained in the enterprise. And these companies can be very successful; start-ups from the University of California Berkeley alone raised more than $1.3 billion (£770 million) in private capital in the five years up to 2011.

Plenty of the leading enterprises we visited during the mission were started by teams that first connected in academic institutions. There were many references in their presentations to the lessons learned and inspiration received during their early years - as well as to information gleaned more recently from the academy. There does seem to be a much more healthy ongoing relationship in California between entrepreneurs and their alma maters.

In addition, Californian university spin-offs seem to thrive on cross-licensing their IP to each other, sharing and building on each other's ideas and research. …

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