Luke Johnson: Our universities are sitting on an IP goldmine

Britain should make more use of its universities; entrepreneurs provide the best apprenticeships; and why 3D printing will forge our way to growth.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 17 Dec 2013

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 £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 $2.5bn, with underlying sales from licensed technology of $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.

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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 $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.

Nowadays, there is a non-profit organisation, New Entrepreneurs Foundation, that helps broker such positions. It aims to place highly ambitious young people in assistant roles within enterprising firms for a year in order to give them the experience and confidence to set up their own business.

Participants receive coaching and are partnered with a top-quality mentor. The programme is gold standard and should deliver quite a few stars in the future. I've been to speak at a few of their events and can confirm the attendees are bright and committed.

The programme is heavily oversubscribed, but for twentysomethings who are serious about building a major undertaking, this course seems an excellent preparation for the real thing.

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Everywhere one reads about the need to rebalance the British economy and revive manufacturing. And it is certainly true that although London is booming, owing to its strength in sectors such as financial services, much of the rest of the country is struggling, and we are suffering a chronic trade deficit, especially in tangible goods.

One possible answer is the growth of local, small-scale fabrication, thanks to the rise of technologies such as 3D printing. In the US, a 'maker' movement has taken hold, bringing together tinkerers, artisans, amateur engineers, tech enthusiasts, craft hobbyists and others who love to construct objects. They have a magazine - Make - and events called Maker Faires. These festivals have spread to the UK.

There are also communal workshops dotted around the US where this new army of mini-manufacturers can use heavier machinery and learn new skills. Two fairly recent books on the subject provide helpful reading. One is Chris Anderson's Makers: The New Industrial Revolution; the other is The Tinkerers, by Alec Foege.

There is something very satisfying about making and fixing products oneself. Sophisticated automation means modern factories can be almost devoid of staff, full instead of robots and computerised equipment.

But making bespoke items and original physical things is creative and real. Digital tools enable high-quality prototyping - mass production can follow if the products have wide appeal.

The north and midlands forged the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and they have a tradition of making products.

Perhaps one of the answers to the challenges of growth and unemployment in these regions is to persuade the armies of inventors and DIYers to come together and replicate America's maker phenomenon.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners.

Follow him on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonRCP

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