High time for British universities to ramp up efforts to commercialise research outcomes

A version of this article by Professor Max Lu, DL AO, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Surrey, was published in the Times Higher Education and on its digital platforms

Universities have long been the bedrock of groundbreaking research and scholarly advancement. Yet the journey from academic discovery to societal impact often faces a critical gap: effective commercialisation.

This is never easy. Last week, three US experts in intellectual property (IP) argued in Times Higher Education that, contrary to popular opinion, the UK and the US are comparable when it comes to spin-off efficiency. The highest-performing institutions in both countries generate about two or three spin-outs a year per $100 million (£80 million) of research expenditure.

However, the authors are also right to observe that the UK lacks confidence in the effectiveness of its university innovation system. This is why the government’s review of university spinouts, also published last week, comes at a critical time.

The report highlights room for improvement, offering many sensible recommendations for enhancing the ecosystem. This is not just about financial gain; it’s a strategic imperative for universities to translate IP into real-world applications to help drive economic growth and secure the UK’s ambition to be a science and technology superpower.


Australia has things to teach the UK

It is certainly true that the UK shouldn’t just be looking to the US for models of best practice. In my experience, Australia is also doing a lot of things right.

UniQuest, the University of Queensland’s commercialisation arm, illustrates the significance of a strategic and co-ordinated approach to IP commercialisation. The University of Queensland, where I was formerly provost, ranks among the top 10 per cent universities globally for revenue generation from IP, raising A$3 billion (£1.6 billion) in annual sales of UniQuest-licensed products. This success stems from close collaboration with researchers, partnership managers (employed to scout for IP and promote it to business development directors) and the investment community.

According to a recent survey by Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA), Australia’s 37 public universities, which collectively spend approximately A$11.9 billion a year on research, had 311 active research spinouts and startups in 2021, with total equity of A$726 million held in them. Commercialisation revenue grew to A$251 million in 2021.

By way of comparison, according to NCUB State of the Relationship Report 2022, the UK universities generated 1379 spinouts, and commercialisation revenue of £172m, for about £20B annual expenditure across the sector.

In the last few years, the Australian government has pledged strong support for researchers working towards commercialisation, including a A$2 billion package to bridge the so called “valley of death” between discovery and market launch.

Enhanced collaboration

One of the key recommendations of the UK review, led by University of Oxford Vice-Chancellor Irene Tracey and Andrew Williamson, a managing partner of the University of Cambridge’s in-house venture capital fund, is the establishment of clear, market-aligned guidelines for spin-out deals. This includes standard equity splits and a collaborative framework for deal negotiations, ensuring fairness and efficiency. Additionally, the review advocates for increased data transparency on spinouts and their deal terms, alongside the implementation of a national spin-out register, enhancing visibility and accountability in the commercialisation process.

This is of critical importance for the confidence of the investor community, which needs a system that is open and navigable.

Enhanced collaboration between spin-out companies and the labs of the inventors will also be vital in adding value to technology development and scale-up. Not all spin-outs are founded by the academics who did the original research, but those that pursue commercial paths quite independently from their academic progenitors are statistically more likely to fail.

Another critical aspect is the funding and support for technology transfer offices (TTOs). The report’s recommendation for shared TTOs, especially among smaller research universities, can create economies of scale and pooled expertise, benefiting a wider range of institutions. This approach can be particularly advantageous for disciplines like social sciences, humanities and the arts, which are increasingly demonstrating their potential for commercialisation.

This is an approach we already see in Australia, where smaller and newly established university TTOs partner with well-established TTOs or commercialisation vehicles. This results in immediate increases in the number of invention disclosures (patent or other type of IP rights claims in the form of applications or declarations), facilitates investment deals and enhances the commercialisation process as a whole.  

Broadening our impact

At the University of Surrey, we have experience of leading engagement between research and industry across a range of clusters, from space and cyber to animal health, working with partner universities and deep vertical cross-sections of industry sectors. And our pan-university research institutes (People-Centred AI; Sustainability) have been designed to fuse our hard and social science expertise, broadening our impact beyond creating the technologies of the future to working across industry and policy spheres to maximise impact and drive change. We have also established an innovation and commercialisation company, Innovate Surrey Ltd, to help drive this mission.

Integrating commercialisation efforts with academic pursuits is also essential, and I endorse the report’s recommendation for PhD students to have access to entrepreneurship training and internship opportunities in spin-outs, venture capital firms or TTOs. It’s about embedding a culture of entrepreneurship within the academic fabric of the institution. 

In these ways, UK universities can fulfil the imperative to ramp up their efforts to further enhance their contribution to society.