Why (and how) should academics commercialise research?

Earlier this year, I spoke to a room full of engineers – academics, postgrads and PhD candidates – to run through the ins and outs of why (and how) they should commercialise and communicate their research. It was my gig as a keynote speaker for the University of Sheffield’s Engineers Researcher Symposium.

My take-home was that commercialisation and communication lead to more relevant academic research being conducted that improves lives and provides solutions to our global issues.

By raising the profile of research, either through commercialisation or communication, it allows academics to establish relationships and build networks both within and outside their field. Exchanging ideas and getting feedback encourages thinking in more practical terms. And the resulting conversations can lead to collaborations that advance research in ways that individual academics can’t alone.

Academics should also recognise the need to give back to society in return for being funded by the taxpayer. To this end in the UK, the research funding councils set up the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the mid-2000s, which ranks each UK university in terms of the quality and impact of its research, accordingly allocating funding and resources based upon the results.

This impact in the REF is defined as “an effect on, change, or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or public services, health, the environment, or quality of life beyond academia”. When the next REF takes place in 2021, the percentage of a university’s score based upon their researcher’s impact will increase from 20% to 25% – a sign of the increasing value placed on ensuring research benefits society.

Commercialise research to generate Impact

Research commercialisation is one of the most direct ways that academics can ensure their work has impact. But due to limitations in funding or resources, it’s often necessary to bring in an industry partner to help validate, scale-up and commercialise a discovery. This gap between a research breakthrough and a working prototype is often referred to as the ‘valley of death’ for innovation. Fortunately, it can be bridged by collaborating with industry.

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Take Bell Labs, for example, an industrial research and development (R&D) company, now owned by Nokia but originally founded by Alexander Graham Bell in the late-1800s. Through their history of collaborating with universities, Bell Lab’s R&D teams are credited with the invention of the world’s first lasers, transistors and solar cells, as well as satellite and telephone communication.

On the life sciences side of the equation, earlier this year LifeArc, a British medical research charity, received £1-billion for a licensing agreement they made with Merck. This deal was based upon early-stage research conducted by LifeArc researchers (then the Medical Research Council) that laid the foundations for a new cancer immunotherapy treatment, Keytruda, which is now available on the market.

And through IN-PART, an online matchmaking platform for university-industry collaboration (akin to a match.com for research commercialisation), we’ve initiated over 6,000 new interactions between academia and industry since the platform launched in 2014. The conversations resulting from these interactions have led to everything from grant funding for collaborative researchco-development projects, and testing new materials and proprietary compounds, to product developmentexclusive global licensing deals, and long-term strategic partnerships.

The two main routes to commercialise research

If researchers are working on a project that might have a potential real-world application, there are two general starting points to commercialisation.

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The tried and tested route is to start by speaking with the university’s technology transfer (or research and innovation) office. They’ll conduct an initial evaluation of the project and, if it presents a unique solution on the market, will protect the intellectual property (IP) surrounding the research with a patent. From there, the technology transfer office (TTO) will provide support to commercialise the research, helping to find funding and partners in industry for collaborative research and development. In some cases, the TTO might spin-out the technology into its own company.

The second route to commercialisation involves doing it alone. This returns greater rights and financial rewards but requires independently protecting intellectual property (IP), setting up a business, and negotiating collaborations and funding agreements with industry. This option isn’t available at every university as IP ownership policies vary across jurisdictions and institutes.

There are pros and cons to both approaches and middle ground between the two. As an early-career researcher, getting guidance from a technology transfer professional who has dedicated their career to commercialising research is probably not a bad place to start.

University students should be taught about how academic research is funded and commercialised before they start as researchers. This would encourage an entrepreneurial culture more like the USA – where it’s been rumoured that entrepreneurs wait outside the windows at Stanford University to pounce on ideas thrown out by researchers – or Australia, where CSIRO accelerate the generation of new cutting-edge technologies through the ON programme.

If we can better shine a light on how science, engineering and (increasingly) the social sciences are catalysts that drive the economy, it might nurture a new generation of academics who think about the impact of their research from the go.

Written by Alex Stockham, IN-PART’s Communications Manager

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2019: ‘Why (and how) should academics commercialise research?’

About IN-PART:

IN-PART is an online matchmaking platform that simplifies the initial connection between teams in academia and industry to help get breakthroughs out of the lab and onto the market.

Launched in 2014, we now work with 230+ universities and research institutes worldwide, strategically matching commercially-relevant academic research to R&D professionals from a network of 5,500+ innovation-driven companies.

Request a demo of our service for universities or, if you’re in a company, register for free access.

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