UK plans to revise model agreement for university-industry collaborations

17 Jul 2013 | News
After 8 years the standard agreement will be revised, following evidence that it is little used and is seen as straightjacketing relationships between industry and academics, rather than enabling and supporting them

The UK government’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is to lead a revision of the country’s model agreement for university–industry collaboration, following evidence that it is too restrictive and does not support open innovation. The move was confirmed last week at the Triple Helix conference held at University College London. 

The agreement, known as the “Lambert toolkit”, was a central plank of the recommendations of the 2003 government investigation into university intellectual property led by Richard Lambert, and has been in use since 2005.

No timetable has yet been set for the revision of the toolkit, but the IPO’s Innovation Director, Rosa Wilkinson, confirmed to Science|Business that a working group is now drawing up a timetable. She added that the revision process would follow the model established when the toolkit was first produced, with an Outer Working Group drawn from industry, research, government and other interested parties.

The planned revision comes on the back of two reports the IPO commissioned into links between academia and industry. The first, “Collaborative Research between Business and Universities: The Lambert Toolkit 8 Years On”, carried out by the consultancy IP Pragmatics, was published in May. 

The second, “Collaborate to innovate”, which surveyed 200 businesses on their collaborations with universities, was carried out by the Big Innovation Centre, which is a collaboration between The Work Foundation and Lancaster University. This survey was launched at the conference, which was hosted by the Big Innovation Centre along with Birkbeck, University of London, and UCL Advances. 

The Triple Helix Association was founded in 2009 to promote analyses and studies on the interaction between universities, companies and governments, to support technology transfer and commercialisation of university research

Help to negotiate deals

The inspiration behind the Lambert toolkit was to help potential collaborators negotiate deals, lower the transaction costs of the negotiations, and provide examples of best practice. 

One worrying area is SMEs, widely seen as the powerhouses of innovation. IP Pragmatics report that 72 per cent of the SMEs in its sample “agree that small companies are deterred from collaboration by the costs and time required for negotiation” and that “only 17% of those who are aware of Lambert believe that it has helped to increase the amount of SME-university collaboration”.

Another big problem is the perception that the Lambert agreements depend too much on a “service model”, whereas collaboration between industry and universities is becoming much more varied. Flexibility and co-creation are the buzzwords now.

The report from the Big Innovation Centre provided further evidence that the toolkit needs updating. Only 10 per cent of the respondents had used it, although of those 60 per cent found it to work very well. It was seen as lacking focus on new mechanisms of collaboration.

One surprising finding is that most of the firms in the sample – many of them in business services or creative cultural or media sectors – have not used either formal or informal IP protection strategies in their working with universities. Those that have IP strategies tend to use “bundles of both formal and informal mechanisms”.

Exploiting open innovation

Overall, said Birgitte Andersen, Director of the Big Innovation Centre, the second report found that “Knowledge transfer is working well, but many are failing to exploit open innovation.” The report highlighted the role of “soft skills” in cementing partnerships – indeed “trust” and non-disclosure agreements, rather than formal IP deals, came out as the most frequently cited mechanism for protecting intellectual property.

That view was echoed by Tony Clayton, Chief Economist at the IPO. “Collaboration works best when it focuses on access to knowledge and co-creation,” he said, adding that for him the key point from the discussion at the conference session was the importance of trust as “the top knowledge protection mechanism”. So the challenge is to find ways of managing relationships to nurture trust.

Informal relationships emerged from the survey as forming the basis of successful collaborations. The most frequent initial contact is at conferences and networking events, the survey found, rather than through university technology transfer offices. Clayton highlighted the view of “a significant number of businesses” that these offices need to concentrate on enabling and supporting relationships between industry and academics, rather than seeking to control them.

Clayton added that the Big Innovation Centre report – though launched at the Triple Helix conference – was not yet final, and invited comments. “We don’t want a publication, we want a better way of doing things,” he said, adding that the production of the report was “open innovation in practice”. 

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