Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK should have open access to intellectual property (IP) created through publicly funded university research, according to the new president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
Prof Andy Hopper, an entrepreneur and academic who heads the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University, said this will be necessarily to speed up the commercialisation of technologies and to boost the wider economy in the UK.
‘There is what I call a turnstile model between university and industry at the moment, rather than a revolving-door model, which I think is more appropriate for everybody, including universities,’ Hopper told The Engineer.
Currently, many universities have technology-transfer offices (TTOs), which are responsible for assessing inventions; IP protection and patenting; licensing; and the formation of spin-out companies.
‘This transfer happens at such an early stage of the overall business growth that most of it will fail and most of the patents won’t be used for anything much — you get many green shoots growing so one or two of them get longer,’ said Hopper.
The latest proposal would involve openly assigning required IP to UK businesses at minimal extra cost and, in return, the university would get a one or two per cent shareholding as a goodwill gesture.
Similar proposals have been made in the past, with the universities of Bristol and Glasgow and King’s College London announcing last year they would be making some of their IP available in an ‘easy access’ model.
However, it was accused of potentially creating a two-tier system and undermining universities’ revenue streams. Hopper claims that a truly open-access model would circumvent these problems.
‘When I look at the universities and their income, they get money from benevolent donations, they get money from research that’s contracted by industry and maybe they’ll get some money out of shareholding. It’s possible that the overall income for universities will actually go up if they reduce barriers, by possibly increasing goodwill and contracted research.’
Hopper said TTOs may still have a role to play since they have been successful in certain areas, but they will have to evolve.
‘They are in a conflicted position working for entrepreneur academics, the universities themselves and UK plc, and my view is they should be privatised, be independent and should compete. I would even encourage investors to look at those offices and it will be appropriate for the government to give tax breaks for such investments.’
Hopper will give his inaugural IET address entitled ‘A Perspective on Innovation’ tonight in central London.