How effective are university technology transfer offices?
With the revamping of higher education, universities are more eager than ever to make their research available commercially. To this end most higher education establishments now boast a 'technology transfer office' (TTO). These range from simple offices to separate companies owned by the university. On paper the idea looks a good one. The offices work as intermediaries between business and academia, identifying potentially exploitable research going on at the university, and selling it to the private sector. They also attract research from commercial organisations.
But academics are famously ill equipped to deal with the hard-edged business world. By the same token business, with its focus on the bottom line, may not be the egg-heads' first choice of partner.
Nonetheless, some of the better established TTOs can show impressive results. Jim Shedden, a consultant at Oxford University's incorporated subsidiary Isis, points out that: 'One of our outstanding successes was the foundation of Oxford Molecular, a company worth over £200 million.' Isis customers include Sony, Glaxo and SmithKline Beecham, and the university owns a significant chunk of its offshoot's equity.
Southampton University's TTO can also claim success in touting its innovations to industry. 'We deal a lot with large companies such as Pirelli and Reckitt & Colman', says Dr Don Fox, head of innovation and research. 'We have dealings with smaller companies, but they're almost always hi-tech.'
In spite of the rosy picture painted by some of the universities, industry is generally less enthusiastic. BICC's technical liaison manager, Brian Butler, says that 'From a contractual point of view they (the TTOs) are useful, but they're not particularly useful in terms of finding people.
If they didn't exist I don't know that we'd really notice'. Surprisingly, companies occasionally complain, too, about overly hard-edged business practices on the part of universities. Adds Butler, 'It rarely happens but one or two have been incredibly aggressive, particularly with intellectual property rights. On a couple of occasions, we've simply had to walk away.'
Phillip Wright, senior policy adviser to the CBI's technology group, believes that the TTOs which work best are those which emphasise their liaison role, rather than that of guardian of intellectual property. 'The company comes to the university for expertise, but brings expertise of its own too. Universities lack industrial expertise: the best (TTOs) focus on the university's role, which is firstly education, secondly to provide a long-term research base - and thirdly to service industry.'
Companies looking towards universities for research partnerships can expect a very variable picture. The universities' annual research income from industry ranges from under £150,000 to just over £84 million per institution. Professor Alan Brickwood of Brunel University, who leads the DTI's Access to Knowledge team, admits that 'it's a complex picture and there is a real patchiness - depending on location and industry.' Pharmaceutical companies in the Cambridge area, for example, derive real benefit from the university. 'It's exemplary good practice - in other areas this isn't necessarily the case.' Even where the link between industry and academia works less well, at least a TTO is a sign that something's going on.