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University IP should be licensed to small UK firms, says IET president

SMEs should have greater access to IP created in Britain’s universities and more engineers need to be embedded in government as the nation progresses with large infrastructure projects.

This, says outgoing IET president Prof Andy Hopper CBE, would give SMEs the opportunity to add value and commercialise IP, whilst government would have access to the expertise it needs to successfully implement future policy based around engineering and technology.

In a statement, Prof Hopper said, ‘Tax payers are already funding the creation of innovative intellectual property in our universities, so it seems reasonable that more of this is made available to UK SMEs.’

‘Universities should be encouraged and incentivised more to kick start the development of new technologies and products by openly assigning the required IP to dynamic British businesses at minimal extra cost.

‘In return, maybe the university could get a one or two per cent shareholding – more of a goodwill gesture than a conventional transaction. This is all perfectly possible and is happening in a number of UK universities already.’

Prof Hopper wants also to see more engineering advisers embedded in government given the number of projects - such as Smart Grids, HS2, faster broadband networks and new or expanded airports - that are being addressed.

Prof Hopper, who heads the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory, said, ‘In the UK, engineering is still undervalued despite our rich industrial heritage and track record in pioneering new technologies. This is reflected in the make-up of the government and must change to help turn around the UK economy.

‘With the success of so much future policy based around engineering and technology, I believe that it is time for the government to draw more on the knowledge and experience of the UK’s best engineering talent at the highest levels.’

Readers' comments (10)

  • Here we go again!
    Until we remove the assessment and creation of the 'words' which sadly for too long have been the vehicle for so-called IP from the patent lawyers (who simply take their profits-up-front) and return it to where it belongs, the appropriate professional institution (I Mech Eng, IET RS, and so on...there is frankly no point in any distribution of the presumed 'cake'.

    Unless I have been particularly unlucky in my choice of Department(s), [having taught at 4 universities, and engaged in my academic research into their sloppy, unprincipled, disjointed research] my assessment as an external consultant -the way I earned my living for 35 years- would have to be that most of their research is completely mis-placed, irrelevant, disjointed, and incompetent.

    Measuring its potential by the number of 'learned??' papers published an equal joke! Though not quite as funny as a School taking on a researcher/Prof from elsewhere so that his/her 'papers' become part of the 'pile' attributed (and rewarded by HMG) to the new institution. [Pinch yourself, it actually is the case]

    'Unfit for purpose, root and branch change required, amount of funding spent suggesting that the returns are negligible-we have all heard them before applied to everywhere else in the administration of the State, so why not now where it really might matter: creating the intellectual seed-corn for a future in a world dominated by technology!

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  • Many research projects in universities are now in collaboration with industry. Clearly the IP from these projects are not going to be available for free use by other companies.

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  • What is the incentive for universities to generate meaningful IP if all the profits go to randomly selected SMEs? If they didn't believe in the research proposal enough to invest in it up front then why should they benefit from it after the university has taken all the risk? Not forgetting the unfortunate academics who invest their life energy trying to prove how worthwhile their research is!

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  • I think what the good Prof is trying to say is that this would be a great way to better exploit the IP and keep it here in the UK. How many times have we seen great British ideas end up in the hands of foreign/multinational companies with no real long term payback for the researchers or the tax payers who funded it. He is well worth listening to on both point I feel.

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  • As a novice to IP and the minefield it seems to be, I can't help but agree with Mike Blamey.

    From the first time I looked at IP a few years ago, and then started considering the opportunities available working with Universities, the immediate question was why should Universities retain IP when the public has paid for it?

    Having said that, with a daughter starting her first year at Uni. this year, it also occurred to me that being that she pays £9,000 per year for her education, and whilst I understand that only covers a fraction of the total cost, shouldn't she still benefit from any IP she is involved with as well as the Professor or University itself?

    The anonymous contributor asks what the motivation would then be for Universities to undertake IP driven research. I would imagine because that's why Universities exist, to undertake research and educate students. The financial upkeep of the University is the Governments responsibility, isn't it? And I know for a fact that there is a minimum level of research required from each University Dept.

    But of course the issue is what becomes of University funded research that gains IP; could there be some kind of auction process which would also have the effect of a monitoring the cost/reward/success of each Universities IP research. Higher quality IP with a more efficient cost base would reflect a better return on investment. That process might encourage more research from the less prestigious but more efficiently run Universities, perhaps on less technical or advanced processes but the more efficiently they do them the better the returns are.

    Part developed projects could be auctioned off for funding to fully develop IP in partnership with industry. The return from an auction would far better reflect the value or viability of a project before good money is chucked after bad by the University who probably doesn't understand the market as well as a manufacturer, for instance.

    Could this lead to a far better IP valuation metric than the current one which appears to me to be a bit of opportunistic guesswork?

    I appreciate I am likely to be talking through a hole ...but this is the perception of a complete novice, which I don't think is too far removed from that of the general public.

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  • Dear David Redfern,
    First, I wish your daughter great things as she starts her University career. I do not know what subject/faculty she has joined, but whatever it is, I know that if she has anything about her (and the style and content of her father's letter would suggest that she does!) who will learn in spite of the laziness, incompetence, stupidity and selfishness of her lecturers, not because of them.
    In session 2003/4 it was my good fortune (along with the contribution of a series of retired business/technology colleagues who joined our tutorials)and indeed the active participation of our students who greatly valued and respected/contributed to the unique teaching methods we developed, to win outright the Higher Education Academy Award for best Engineering lecturer in the country. You will imagine my surprise and that of 'following years of students who were looking forward to benefiting from this outstanding approach, when I was 'retired' : primarily because my teaching methods were at variance with those demonstrated over a previous 40 years to be little better than those of the Abbot reading out sections of the Bible for the novice monks to copy!
    [Material goes from the notes of the lecturer to those of the student without passing through the brains of either!]
    If it was not so wasteful, serious and distressing it would be funny.

    Thank you for your support for my views on patents and intellectual property? Think about those words, surely a contradiction in terms. Like legal profession and military intelligence, surely a contradiction/oxymoron

    Best wishes to all thinkers, and human beings: which I trust I am!
    Mike B

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  • Why not simply annually AUCTION off the successful research/IP from all UK academic centres that have been taxpayer funded BUT ONLY allow UK-registered companies that pay UK corporation tax to participate in the auctions?

    They might be buying 6 months or 1 year of assistance from the authors of the research plus rights to the technology.

    Thus no foreign firms stealing the fruit of UK intellectual labour, UK companies get 1st bite of 'locally grown cherry', as it were, low-cost experts on tap, AND academia gets a clue re. what makes the best sources of extra funding.


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  • The two Davids' ideas appear to have great potential. Thatcherism/We have auctioned off most of the existing family silver, so why not the future potential! But the stumbling block, as always will be the vested (or should that be gowned/wigged and banked!) interests likely to lose out by this new approach. Those who only make money -and too often out of the good (invention) or bad (diseased commerce and disputes) and not wealth have had 500 years to perfect the stranglehold they have enjoyed on our society. They have had their hands in the pockets, purses and tills of citizen, corporation and State for so long they are not going to give up without one hell of a fight.

    As I have said many times: if patent protection is so important, let those who presently hold a monopoly on its provision, behave as other favoured suppliers to society do. Provide their services free and take a share of the profits.
    Am I being a prophet for suggesting such.

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  • Mike, my daughter's studying Zoology, thankfully she's very capable, unlike her old man who was to thick to do anything but smoke, drink and chase women in his youth.

    Poor kid's sick of my mantra's, question EVERYTHING you are told no matter who by! and, there is a simple way to do anything, but there's no money in 'simple' for the greedy or prestige for the stupid, so avoid complicated people.

    As for your status as a prophet, I suspect you would be condemned as a heretic suggesting the gowns and wigs relinquish control of their 'inheritance'.

    Which makes me wonder. As there is no competition to the patents, copyright, IP etc. processes, isn't it about time someone set something up that more fairly dealt with the subject. A volountary code between manufacturers perhaps?

    It seems old fashioned that the first person to race to the patent office is awarded exclusive rights to a 'widget' whilst someone 5 minutes behind with a better, but subjectively similar process is locked out.

    How many advances in technology have been stifled by this approach or am I simply revealing my true ignorance of the subject?

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  • Dear David,
    I am sure you managed to learn lots from all your youthful activities-perhaps even attending some classes as well. Our Prof at St Andrews believed that he could teach us much of the Engineering topics -trajectory, fluid flow, materials science, and even heat engines-necessary for our degrees on, in and around the golf course. It was my good fortune, whilst teaching at Coventry and Salford (because my Heads of department knew that I had struggled with maths whilst at University) to be responsible for remedial maths! I devised a course, using mathematics in sport, transport, and driving, athletics, food preparation, drinking, bathroom, even mathematics in the bedroom (don't go too far into that!) to demonstrate that these everyday activities, well known to students as part of their normal lives are excellent practical examples of the equations and operations we need to understand as Engineers.

    Apropos more of your patent comments:
    When I was working in the USA (late 60s and early 70s) we were required to record weekly in a proper laboratory book, all experimentation and results of our developments. These were to be signed-off weekly -by a colleague competent to do so" usually a senior but could be just a colleague and THIS became the 'date of invention' for patent purposes. This was the same throughout all industries. ie as professional Engineers we were considered sufficiently capable/ honest to do so. Of course, I have proposed this time and again to our legislators: and what have they done? Nothing!
    To actually permit an Engineer/technologist to be responsible for initiating the intellectual property process-my goodness we cannot allow that, such would remove a complete plank of patent agents work. Never mind how much more effective it would be in furthering the interests of UK plc. Of course, by now you have probably recognised that the interests of UK plc are way behind those of our apparent betters and leaders-lawyers!

    You might be interested to learn that my academic research is entitled "the control and disciplining of professional staff in public & private practice" and addresses many of the points highlighted in my many posts and blogs. If you would like to send me an e-mail directly I would be delighted to continue this exchange without hogging our Engineering Editor's ear or our fellow-Engineers time.
    Mike B

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