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19 February 2018

Research commercialisation - why do it?

Alison Campbell looks at the reasons that drive technology transfer, considering views from the US, the UK and Ireland.

Author: Alison Campbell, director at Knowledge Transfer Ireland

Why a university undertakes research commercialisation has been the subject of a lot of discussion over the past few years and is one that is current in my own back yard. While it is right for governments and policymakers to test assumptions and to reframe when appropriate, this is a question to which the answer has not changed over many years.

Universities do research and teaching. Simplistically, that is what they are funded for – to train people and create new knowledge. Along the way they may create new intellectual property (IP) which may lead to commercialisation, most often through licensing IP to companies and creating spinouts. If lucky, there will be a revenue return from this commercialisation which depends, in large part, on a myriad external factors.

Do we undertake commercialisation for the money? Does revenue to the university tell us how successful we have been? Is this the right way to measure the value of investment in the higher education system? Thrice no.

Commercialisation is a way in which the university can fulfil its mission to disseminate the fruits of its endeavours and deliver societal and economic benefit. This is not new. When I joined UK government agency the Medical Research Council 27 years ago, that was our objective for technology transfer. This has not changed. The recent McMillan review of good practice in technology transfer in the UK, led by Keele University’s vice-chancellor Trevor McMillan, explained that technology transfer is “part of [universities’] mission to deliver impact for society (including the economy).”

As a colleague in the US put it: “If we are not pushing economic development as a focused and desired outcome of technology transfer we are dead. I am asked weekly about what we are doing to create jobs and opportunity.”

Back in the UK, the head of a successful technology transfer office said: “The government position is that they want to see researchers engaged in ensuring the societal benefits of that research are achieved for the taxpayers who have funded it. What I am under pressure to show is that research outcomes have been translated for societal, not just economic, benefit.”

Here in Ireland, our national policy for research commercialisation is clear that we want to “maximise the economic and societal benefits and returns to Ireland from its public investment in research”. It further explains that our universities and institutes should make commercialisation decisions that support this and “maximise the benefit of commercialisation to Ireland rather than maximise returns to the research-performing organisation”.

So why do we do it? The answer lies in what drives people in the technology transfer profession. Because we want to make a difference. Because we want to be part of helping develop the jobs, the products, the new services that make things better for people at a personal, local and national level. Is that not what governments want too? 

The UK McMillan review sums it up nicely: “Technology transfer tends to be expensive and very few – if any – universities worldwide make money from technology transfer. Technology transfer is generally a cost to universities, not a source of additional revenue, though it can lead to other revenues or benefits.”

– This article first appeared on LinkedIn. It has been edited for style and republished with permission from the author.

Copyright Mawsonia Limited 2010. Please don´t cut articles from www.globaluniversityventuring.com or the PDF and redistribute by email or post to the web without written permission.

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