Opposing forces

17 Feb 2011 | Viewpoint
University technology transfer and commercialisation is a delicate balancing act, calling for scale and a global outlook on one hand, and intimate knowledge and continuous contact on the other, says Keith Robson, Chair of SETsquared.

Scale matters in technology transfer and commercialisation – to secure enough research funding to build a rich patent portfolio; provide access the depth and variety of expertise to engage corporate partners, and develop leading edge intellectual property that will attract venture capital partners.

But scale of course implies distance, and this works against the other prime requirement of technology transfer and commercialisation, which is intimate knowledge of the science, the expertise of the researchers, and the ambitions and requirements of spin-out companies.

On one hand, “It’s an intensive and continuous contact sport,” says Keith Robson, Chair of the UK technology transfer body SETsquared. But on the other hand, scale is important when it comes to interactions with the wider world and dealing with corporate partners.  “A company like Samsung makes massive investments, and they only want to deal with the very best,” Robson notes.

Breadth of scientific coverage

This week, eight years after its formation SETsquared is welcoming Exeter University into the existing partnership between Southampton, Bristol, Bath and Surrey universities, in a move that Robson says brings both the attributes of greater scale, and the opportunity for deeper interaction. “The partnership now represents 9 per cent of UK Research Council funding, and a breadth of scientific coverage. But what we also have is trust and depth of contact,” Robson told Science|Business.

As a new member Exeter will bring new ideas and a fresh perspective, while geographical proximity means it will be possible to have direct interaction and build close relationships. As an organisation, SETsquared can now offer a single front door for any corporate or venture capital partners to five of the UK’s leading research universities and a total of 7,400 researchers.

Robson says the role models here are much larger US universities. “What they have is depth of community, depth of contact, intimate knowledge of how companies work, and of angel investor networks.” 

Theming intellectual property

SETsquared received government money to support its formation, and since then has attracted GBP180 million in venture capital to its companies over the past five years. Many relationships begin at an annual technology showcase in London, which Robson says attracts 60 – 70 investors each year. “Exeter will be incremental in terms of our ability to attract venture capital funding,” he said.

Adding Exeter will also help in terms of “theming” intellectual property coming out of the five institutions, to pull related technologies together into a bigger, more robust and more coherent whole. “Often industry can’t fully articulate the problem and our academics may have brilliant ideas, but are looking for the problem,” says Robson.

SETsquared supports university spin outs and start-ups from the wider community in incubation centres at each university, applying a single approach to nurturing and mentoring companies. The methodology will now be applied to Exeter’s incubator too. In total, SETsquared claims to have supported around 650 companies and created 1,000 jobs, since its formation.

Cuts in public spending are making for mean times in the UK university sector, but Robson says he has “never seen so much opportunity.” 

Innovation is a crucial game

“This might fly in the face of the pressure on the sector at the moment, but there is a lot of interest from industrial partners, companies are keen to talk, the level of interaction has gone up and the quality of interaction has gone up.” After ten years working in technology transfer, following a career in electronics manufacturing, Robson believes all the rhetoric about innovation and its role in economic growth is actually having a practical impact. “In the past 12 – 18 months there has been an incredible acceleration, due to the pressure on companies to perform,” he says. “This is a crucial game; it’s up to us to seize the opportunity.”

So has SETsquared come up with a formula that will allow it to continue to scale-up whilst retaining the depth of its relationships? Well, it remains a delicate balancing act, Robson says. SETsquared could further build its scale by taking in new members – but not too many more. “We’re definitely limited to the number you can have: we could go higher than five, but we don’t want to just become a club, or a talking shop.”

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