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Innovative Regions

21 August 2014

Tech Transfer Regions: UK and Scandinavia

This month sees TT Regions return to its starting point last year of the UK and Scandinavia.

Author: Gregg Bayes-Brown, editor

It’s been a whole year since Global University Venturing started its technology transfer regions features, which means this month takes us back to our starting point: UK and Scandinavia. With neither big developments in Norway or Denmark since we last visited the countries in GUV Issue 006 over the past year, this month our focus falls on the UK and Sweden.


United Kingdom

If Global University Venturing’s latest 2014 data is anything to go by, the United Kingdom remains the second most active region for research commercialisation in the world. Built on the back of one of the oldest and most prestigious higher education systems in the world, the UK’s universities are one of the main pillars upon which the success of the country is built upon. It’s also a sector that is generally trending in the right direction, with key metrics (see Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) data in box-out 2).

For the 2012-13 period, collaborative research, intellectual property income, consultancy, and other activities brought in £3.57bn ($5.95bn) for UK universities, an increase of 5% for the year before. The downward trend of the establishment of new university spin-outs has continued, with HEFCE reporting 150 compared to 2011-12’s 191, yet intellectual property income as a whole is up 9.3%. Also, the impact of pushes for entrepreneurship on campus is bearing fruit, with the number of graduate startups up 28% year on year, now standing at 3,502.

A large part of the spin-out generation over the past year has stemmed from the UK’s Golden Triangle – Oxford, Cambridge, and London. As anyone who read the nominations for the GUV Awards 2014 will know, Oxford University has had a rather stellar year on all fronts. The acquisition of gaming spin-out NaturalMotion for $527m made over $50m for the university, while the university’s tech transfer unit Isis Innovation has also expanded on international relations with China and launched a fund to seed its spin-outs.

Over in Cambridge, firms operating in Europe’s largest tech cluster had great news with the launch of Cambridge Innovation Capital. The firm has a £50m evergreen fund (which it is looking to double in the next two years or so through an IPO) which should continue to provide a large investment pot for companies in the area for the foreseeable future. Companies linked to Imperial Innovations, Imperial College London’s TTO, had similar good news recently after Innovations held a fundraising through the placement of ordinary shares said to be worth $255m. Combined with Innovations expanding its reach to intellectual property from other universities in the Golden Triangle area, the extra cash will definitely be bringing a smile to spin-outs or potential spin-outs looking to launch, which are no doubt incentivised after ICL spin-out Circassia held the largest UK biotech initial public offering for years in March.

The UK’s most successful incubator SetSquared – a partnership between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton, and Surrey – also had a strong year. The incubator both hit £1bn in external fundraising for its over 1,000 incubated companies and was also ranked the number one incubator in Europe by the University Business Incubator Index’s 2014 report.

One of the biggest deals in UK tech transfer this year came when IP Group acquired fellow commercialisation firm Fusion IP in January for $116m. The deal consolidates a lot of tech transfer flexing power under one roof, which sees IP Group pick up Fusion’s standing commercialisation agreements with Sheffield, Cardiff, Nottingham, and Swansea universities. IP Group also raised £100m earlier in the year through placement of shares, and has also signed deals with Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Columbia universities over in the US, piloting an international bridge that could mean big things for the London-based firm.

Up in Manchester, the university is still constructing its £61m National Graphene Institute, due to open next year. The university and the NGI are central to efforts to create a ‘graphene city’, designed to retain Manchester’s leading role in the development of the “wonder material” graphene. Evidence of interest in what Manchester is already doing comes by the way of 2-DTech, a spin-out from the university, which was acquired within a year of it being launched.

The future of the UK’s overall success may be somewhat scuppered by the Scottish independence vote on 18 September. Many facts are somewhat clouded by the smog of rhetoric from both sides which has dominated the debate. However, a report earlier in the year from tech transfer organisation PraxisUnico indicated that Scottish spin-outs have an economic impact of more than $500m a year, with a total 20% of all UK spin-outs originating from Scottish universities. For the UK, losing Scotland would be a major blow to its innovation efforts, but’s not a one-way street. Should Scotland leave, questions hang over the ability of Scotland to provide free higher education, the future of its currency, whether independence will trigger a flight of the financial sector to south of the border, and its membership in the EU. While Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond continues to paint a rosy picture of Scotland both having its haggis and eating it on all fronts, there are plenty who argue otherwise, meaning there could be a major negative impact on Scottish research.

That said, no matter which way the vote goes in September, the UK looks set to continue building on its strong academic base and growing economy for the foreseeable future.



Sweden’s technology transfer scene hasn’t changed much in the past year – that is to say, it hasn’t got any easier to find the pulse on it.

The lack of visibility belies Sweden’s incredible ability to innovate. On top of the Nobel prize, Sweden’s also home to Skype and Spotify, as well as inventions such as dynamite and the computer mouse. While it may have been knocked down a peg in this year’s Global Innovation Index by the UK, it still holds on to the third spot. The country still performs well against others in terms of the gross expenditure and research and development, its number of researchers, high patent applications, and benefits from a strong economy.

And yet, its technology transfer scene remains impregnable. A large part of this is due to the country’s professor’s privilege law, giving researchers complete control over intellectual property developed on campus. In effect, this would allow a researcher to develop a technology at Uppsala, and then walk off with it to another university, a corporate, or just sit on it. Ultimately, the latter is what happens, as the lack of guaranteed incentives have led to a massively underdeveloped infrastructure for knowledge and technology transfer.

In the report ‘Bottom-up versus top-down policies towards the commercialisation of university intellectual property’ which compares US and Swedish approaches to tech transfer, it is noted that at least 71% of inventions require further involvement by the academic researcher in order to be successfully commercialised. Yet, despite being called the professor’s privilege, many Swedish researchers are unsupported, and have little motivation to leave their research posts, leading to plenty of missed opportunities.

The situation, aside from no clear infrastructure or roadmap for academics to follow and leaving them unsupported in advancing their technologies, also means there is a dearth of both data and manpower. The lack of data is especially detrimental when it comes to evaluating the performance of Swedish tech transfer, but the overall image is that of the academic powerhouse that Sweden is being an Olympic sprinter capable of picking up the gold, yet has their shoelaces tied before the race.

Resources acquired from the Swedish Network for Innovation and Technology Transfer Support (SNITTS) indicate that this has been a topic of discussion since as far back as the turn of the millennium, with multiple sources indicating that Sweden is losing out in comparison with commercialisation practices in the UK or the US. Yet, despite evidence that the country should reconsider its position, Sweden has stuck to its guns.

The fact remains that, even without the data and the manpower, somehow Sweden’s system works. From a reporter’s perspective, the country takes the Fort Knox approach to tech transfer, locking up anything that looks useful and putting up walls to innovation when they should be digging a river. Yet, incredible technology still falls through the cracks. In the case of Disruptive Materials, the recently launched Uppsala spin-out is commercialising Upsalite (discovered by accident, it should be noted). The compound allows for drugs thrown in the bin due to be reconsidered as it increases solubility. This means drugs which the body couldn’t previously be absorbed can be looked at a second time.

And so, even though the system seems counterproductive, it still delivers results. But still, the question remains, could Sweden do more to live up to its potential?


Box-out 1

UK Facts

Spin-outs 2012-13: 150 (2010-11: 268)

R&D Spend as % of GBP 2011: 1.7%

Global Innovation Rank: 2 (2013: 3)

Global Competiveness Rank: 10 (2013: 8)

Income from Licensing 2011-12: $123m


Box-out 2

UK Main indicators (£000s cash terms)






Collaborative research










Contract research





Continuing professional development and continuing education





Facilities and equipment related services





Intellectual property income





Regeneration and development programmes





Grand Total





Source: HEFCE Higher Education – Business and Community Interaction survey 2012-13 (published May 2014)


Box-out 3


University                                           Tech Transfer Unit

Aberdeen University                      Commercialisation and Knowledge Exchange Group

Birmingham University                  Alta Innovations

Cambridge University                    Cambridge Enterprise

Cardiff University                             FusionIP

Edinburgh University                      Edinburgh Research and Innovation

Glasgow University                         Research Strategy and Innovation Office

Imperial College London               Imperial Innovations

King's College London                    KCL Business and Innovation

Leeds University                              IP Group

Manchester University                  UMI3

Newcastle University                     Technology Transfer and Licensing

Oxford University                            Isis Innovation

Queen's University Belfast          Enterprise Development

Sheffield University                        IP Group

St Andrews University                   Knowledge Transfer Centre

Ulster University                              Office of Innovation

University College London           UCL Business

Warwick University                         Warwick Ventures



Box out 4

Sweden facts

Global Innovation Rank: 3 (2013: 2)

Global Competiveness Rank: 6 (2013: 4)


Box out 5

Swedish TTOs

University                                           Tech Transfer Unit

Uppsala University                          UU Innovation

Lund University                                LU Innovation System

Chalmers University                       Innovation Office West

Gothenburg University                 GU Holding

Stockholm University                     SU Innovation

Karolinska Institute                         Karolinska Institutet Innovations

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences          SLU Holding

Umeå University                              Uminova Innovation

Royal Institute of Technology     KTH Innovation

Linkoping University                       LiU Innovation

Karlstads University                        Grants and Innovation Office

Mid Sweden University                 MIUN Innovation

Linnaeus University                        Grants and Innovation Office

Orobo University                             Innovation Office

Lulea University of Technology  Centek

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