The Ecosystem: Forget patent protection, think value creation.

05 Apr 2022 | News

In the first of a new Science|Business column on European innovation ecosystems, we look at efforts to get entrepreneurs to rethink how they handle knowledge valorisation

Ian Mundell, writing every week about innovation in The Ecosystem.

Editor’s note: Starting today, Science|Business provides a weekly news column on the people, places and policies innovating in Europe. ‘The Ecosystem’ is written by Ian Mundell, a Brussels-based journalist with extensive experience in news of the European research and innovation scene. Have a suggestion for Ian? Write him at [email protected]

Innovators across Europe have an unhealthy obsession with patents, according to some European Commission officials. They want us think less about protecting intellectual property, and more about getting value from it.

“We are trying to change the paradigm of knowledge valorisation,” said Jean-Eric Paquet, the Commission’s director general for research, during a panel discussion on the subject last week. To this end, his officials have set up a working group to draft new guiding principles for knowledge valorisation, which should be completed by the end of 2022.

Kjell Håkan Närfelt, chief strategy adviser at Swedish innovation agency Vinnova and a member of the working group, set out the key ingredients for the paradigm shift. First, there needs to be a focus on value creation. “It’s about articulating, creating and capturing benefits for a given set of stakeholders, based on using intellectual capital and intellectual assets,” he said.

Hang on to your assets

By intellectual assets he meant all types of intangible results of research and innovation activities. This does include intellectual property rights such as patents and copyright, but much more, as well: knowhow, processes, methods, formulas, algorithms, manuals, and inventions that are not always protected by the law. “If you only focus on intellectual property rights and codified knowledge, your ability to create value is really severely limited,” Närfelt explained.

Further, he says, these intellectual assets need to be managed. The key here is claiming and controlling assets, not simply protecting them in law. “You do not make money or value in courts; you make it by interacting with partners, customers and society.” For example, publication of research results should be seen as a way of controlling intellectual assets, claiming credit for it. Meanwhile, the researchers retain the expert knowhow that is essential to future exploitation.

And lastly, organisations must embrace entrepreneurship as a method for exploiting value, in the same way that the scientific method is a way of creating knowledge. ”Entrepreneurship is not only about starting companies,” Närfelt said.

Paquet conceded that shifting the paradigm would not be easy. “It’s clear that we need a good legal framework, good resources and good guidance to make it happen.”

Pushing at an open door

The good news for the Commission is that academia, at least, is open to doing things differently. A survey of technology transfer offices that it funded last year, and published this February, found that a focus on patenting followed by commercialisation was common. But there was also widespread agreement among the interviewees that a change was needed to better interact with industry, with a greater focus on value creation and utilisation.

The bad news for the Commission is that it will take more than guidelines to get past the barriers that stop technology transfer offices doing more. The survey found that they are often understaffed and under-resourced, so patenting and selling what is patentable becomes all they can manage. This is often reinforced by performance indicators that reward patenting and licence revenue. On top of that, tech transfer staff often cover the whole of a university’s activity and cannot be expected to have the detailed knowledge needed to make more complex valorisation decisions.

“In an industrial firm, you would have a lot of people working on commercialisation within a narrow technical field,” explains study author Marcus Holgersson, associate professor of intellectual property management at Chalmers University of Technology. “In a university setting, you have a large number of scientists producing innovations, and then a small group of tech transfer officers who have a broad range of technologies and science areas to deal with. It is simply not possible to be an expert in all these fields.”

Another challenge is a lack of funding for proof-of-concept work, which gets research to the point where industry or investors might take an interest. Finally, and especially for universities in some east European countries with weaker tech sectors, there may no local industry to work with on commercialisation, and a problem of legitimacy when they reach out to companies in other countries.

Brave new spin-offs

At first sight, the paradigm shift favoured by the Commission appears to create a less friendly environment for start-up creation. Intellectual property protection is generally considered fundamental to the founding process, and a precondition for attracting investment. But Holgersson, who has also worked on IP and venture capital, thinks it is not that black and white. “Venture capitalists are often more interested in the team. They often say: team first, then the idea, then maybe patent rights.”

Getting researchers more involved in the technology transfer process would help build the team in this respect, and address the lack of expert knowledge in tech transfer offices. Some of the universities Holgersson spoke to are doing this through entrepreneurial post-doctoral schemes. “After doing a PhD within a research team, for example, the finished PhD student moves into a start-up based on the inventions created in that research team. Then they have one or two years of funding in this space between a purely academic post-doc and a purely industrial position to see if there is potential to make a business.” This is both an efficient use of resources, and a way of ensuring that spin-offs have the right knowhow onboard from the beginning.

It may even be that a focus on valorisation acts as a stimulus to spinning off, as one of the tech transfer specialists in Holgersson‘s research recalled. “You want to get the best deal you can, but the best deal is not always the one with the most money,” the specialist said (anonymously). “Sometimes it is about supporting a new start-up company with a favourable licence deal. This may lead to collaborations leading to new funding opportunities in collaboration with university researchers down the road.”

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem...

  • A new European equity initiative for the blue economy (that’s anything connected to the oceans, seas or coasts) will offer €500 million in EU funds to financial intermediaries investing in the sector. This should translate into €1.5 billion in risk financing for innovative and sustainable blue economy SMEs and start-ups. Expressions of interest in the InvestEU Blue Economy will be invited shortly by the European Investment Fund. Meanwhile, the Commission’s BlueInvest initiative, which coaches SMEs in the sector and matches them with investors, will be extended until 2026.

  • The 24 Swiss start-ups selected last year for funding by the European Innovation Council will now receive alternative funding from their home government. The companies are no longer entitled to EU funding after Switzerland’s participation in Horizon Europe was blocked by wider political disagreements. Technologies in play include photovoltaics for cultivated land to optimise food production; software for energy-conscious and autonomous driving; optical and magnetic stimulation for healing chronic wounds; and early detection of stored grain pest infestation using highly sensitive optical sensors.

  • The Commission is consulting on conditions for accessing and using data generated by on-board vehicle technology, in advance of publishing regulations towards the end of the year. It asks questions across the board, but is particularly interested in bi-directional access to vehicle resources, and the interplay between access to data and cybersecurity. Start-ups and would-be founders expecting to feed on this data will want to have a say. Comments are due by 21 June.

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