Universities voice concerns about European Innovation Council’s IP regulations

28 Jun 2022 | News

With the European Parliament due to report on the progress to date of the EIC, universities are keen to see intellectual property rules put up for revision

Universities are concerned the European Innovation Council’s (EIC) provisions for intellectual property are blocking commercialisation of research and undermining university technology transfer offices (TTOs).

The universities claim the new rules mean they must grant immediate royalty-free rights to intellectual property generated in their laboratories by EIC-backed academics.

While the aim is to promote commercial translation, universities say this is at odds with the majority of regional and national rules in the EU, which hold that IP is owned by the public institution where it arises, and that giving automatic rights to the inventor will negate the work of many university TTOs in pulling together investible intellectual property and finding licensees.

“We do not understand what the rationale is for these provisions. We think that the more effective approach would be to find instruments outside the EIC to boost TTOs,” said Julien Chicot, senior policy officer at the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

The associations have been signalling for months that the new rules brought in with the full scale launch of EIC may cause problems, but calls for change are now being renewed after Christian Ehler MEP announced he is collecting feedback on the EIC’s work for an upcoming Parliament report.

While the report will focus on issues plaguing the EIC’s Accelerator programme for start-ups, the crown jewel of the EU’s new €10 billion innovation programme, universities hope their concerns will also feature, creating political pressure for change.

Both the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, have spoken out about the issue, but thus far, do not feel they have been heard.

LERU first raised alarms in December, and in March had a meeting with Commission officials to discuss the problem.

“We had the impression that they did not really understand what the problem was for our universities,” said Laura Keustermans, senior policy officer at LERU. “I really hope that Ehler’s report will address this issue of the EIC inventors, and at least keep some pressure on the Commission to address the problem.”

Specifically, EIC says that individual inventors - that is researchers where they qualify as inventors in public institutions - should have “sufficient access rights” to further use/exploit their results. EIC says this does not mean academic inventors have to own the results, just to be allowed to apply them.

In addition, EIC says the rules do allow for sharing of royalties in cases where the university has provided relevant and quantifiable inputs, and so is designed to work in tandem with university policies on IP and technology transfer.

Exclusive rights

Keustermans fears the rules will harm existing practice and reduce exploitation of research, which is at odds with the Commission’s aim. One way this might happen, she says, is commercial partners choosing not to collaborate on projects if they cannot get exclusive rights to research outcomes. Universities will no longer be in a position to guarantee this if the inventors retain rights of access.

Chicot noted the provisions will work better in some countries than others. Sweden’s model, where academics have automatic ownership of IP they generate, is similar to the EIC, allowing for easy application. But in Flanders, for example, the EIC rules are not in line with regional regulations.

The universities hope to see the rules revised in consultation with stakeholders, and for changes to be applied in Horizon Europe’s 2023-2024 work programme.

In the meantime, LERU is calling on the European Commission to guarantee an official response within 30 days when applying for an exemption from the rule.

For the Guild, the solution lies in strengthening university TTOs and thus boosting research translation across Europe. “There was consensus that the Commission should be capacity building TTOs instead of trying to influence this part of university function,” said Chicot, referring to the outcome of a meeting with TTO managers at Guild member universities.

That support could include capacity building and knowledge exchange services, as well as allowing universities to use project funding to shape up academic research for translation without dipping into their research budgets.

The provisions the universities are concerned about only apply to non-profit participants of the EIC’s Transition and Pathfinder programmes.

The views of universities were submitted for consideration in the Parliament’s report earlier this month. Ehler plans to draft the report over the summer before it goes up for a vote in the Parliament’s plenary.

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