Spinning out the benefits of academic research

Helping universities to commercialise their research is one way to improve UK productivity and to spread the gains around the regions.

People often say we’re not as good as the US at turning university research into commercially successful business. I’d say that’s simply not true.

The data tells us we are just as good as the Americans. It’s a question of scale. They are significantly bigger than us and have greater assets and opportunities for investment.

That is not to say we cannot do things better in the UK. Indeed, I’d say we must do things better for at least one big reason.

It’s well known that UK growth has been stalled for many years, particularly since the 2008 financial crash.

We need universities to work harder on commercial applications of their research, whether through greater collaboration with businesses, helping their academics to spin out companies that can apply their work or through strengthening enterprise partnerships including locally, to benefit society and the economy.

Spin-outs are growing

The government is increasingly realising the importance of this. I particularly welcome the publication of the government’s independent review of university spin-out companies and ministers’ acceptance of its recommendations. Research England will play a key role in its implementation, and we will shortly publish our action plan to deliver for the nation.

Spin-outs are one way that universities can commercialise their research. It’s a growing activity, and many people think it’s the sort of activity that can build the next unicorn company – or even an entirely new industry sector – though to achieve this, focus must also be on developing strong innovation eco-systems as well.

I worked as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Nottingham before taking up my role at Research England. I was closely involved in directing research, commercialisation, and knowledge exchange efforts.

One of the most impressive spin-outs to come out of Nottingham is Cerca Magnetics, which grew out of the Sir Peter Mansfield MRI imaging centre at the university.

A spin-out develops a new brain scanner designed for children

With Cerca Magnetics, physicists used quantum sensor technology (OPMs) combined with a new magnetic field control and integrated this to create a wearable brain scanning device, a bit like a cycle helmet, that’s aimed at children suffering with conditions such as epilepsy allowing normal movement while being scanned. It’ll help us to understand these conditions – and hence treat them better – and do it in a much more comfortable and effective way for children.

The physicists worked with academics in advanced manufacturing and with a business called Magnetic Shields to develop the component parts.

It makes an interesting case study because you can see how different layers of support helped to get them to where they are today, from the block funding to underpin academic research, support from the National Quantum Technologies Programme and Wellcome, internal funding from the University of Nottingham through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council support for different stages of development to Innovate UK funding to develop the commercial application. While the academic team are supported through the underpinning quality-related funding and higher education innovation funding provided to the university.

Helping universities to support commercial applications

We should remember that spin-out companies are not the biggest element of the work universities do on commercialisation.

They are doing much more in areas such as contract research and undertaking collaborative work with businesses.

We’ll be doing more over the coming months and years to help and encourage universities to do even better; we will shortly publish our related action plan showing how we intend to do so.

Our Higher Education Innovation Funding helps to support things such as technology transfer offices, business development staff and entrepreneurship training. We’ll be looking at how that fund can do more to support the creation of spin-out companies.

We also have the Connecting Capability Fund, which helps universities to work together to build partnerships with investors and industry, and strengthen local entrepreneurship.

Northern Gritstone is a great example of that. It was founded by the universities of Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds and supports the commercialisation of their science.

Supporting people to move between sectors

People are a big part of this agenda. One thing we have been doing and we’ll be doing more of is looking at how we can support improvements in career mobility.

It shouldn’t matter whether an individual seeks a professorship as an outcome of their work or pursues a commercial route. I’m saying let’s open this up a bit more, let’s support people moving between academia and business or organisations such as the NHS.

We support the National Centre for Universities and Business who are doing some really good work on career mobility. Their recent report shows how we all – government, funders and universities – can and should do more to ensure people can move seamlessly between universities and business.

Seeking out the best practice

I’m a great believer in the power of data and making it public. I helped to lead the work using the National Cancer Patient Experience Survey for the NHS earlier in my career. It was a very powerful tool that showed which NHS Trusts were operating at the highest level and highlighted what others could do to improve care and support for people undergoing treatment for cancer.

We’ll be developing improved data and evidence around spin-out companies and more data around commercialisation and knowledge exchange more broadly, for example, by publishing a Spin Out Register, working with Higher Education Statistics Agency, as part of taking forward development of the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey. We will be looking at how many and how successful are those spin outs? And what are the factors behind that success? What can we, the funders, and universities do to direct our resources better?

Sharing out the benefits of commercialisation

As I said at the start, the data does show we are good at commercialisation of research and that universities are important drivers of local entrepreneurial success. It’s also true for both the US and the UK that some geographical areas stand out more than others.

For example, in the US it might be the area around MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the UK, we often talk about the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge, and London.

Getting better at this can only benefit the economy and society and will enable a greater and more equitable distribution of some of those benefits across the country.

I’ve made it my priority to visit as many universities and meet as many people as I can. Everywhere I go, whether it’s a world-renowned institution or a regional, more teaching-focused university, they’re doing amazing things. They are embracing this as part of their core mission.

They are helping to create the conditions in which companies can start, grow and scale up in their locality. It’s amazing to see them translating discovery research into actual application and increasingly trying to anchor that in a particular area for the benefit of their local economy and community.

We’ll be working to help universities do more of this and get even better at turning their research into commercial products and services that benefit society more widely – and even better at helping grow their local economies.

Top image:  Credit: UK Research and Innovation

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