When some of us first became involved in science commercialisation more than twenty years ago, a core concern was the need to bring universities and other scientific research bodies more effectively into the commercialisation process, to break them out of the academic ghetto.
While this is still important, we now have concerns that the focus on commercialisation and the associated search for commercial funding has become too great and may in fact be distorting our academic structures.
Universities' Multiple Objectives
By their nature, universities have to meet multiple objectives in terms of teaching, research and the pursuit of knowledge. Their role is not just to teach skills, but to disseminate knowledge and encourage thought. Many of the greatest advances in practical knowledge have come, often by serendipity, as a consequence of intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
The disciplines and rigours of applied research and development carried out within bounds set by commercial objectives and non-disclosure agreements can be quite antipathetic to these traditional academic objectives. The problem is most acute in some very successful departments where most postgraduate students, together with a significant proportion of staff, are in fact funded to do commercially oriented research.
The outcomes here can include:
- Reduction in the quantum of curiosity inspired research, leading ultimately to a reduction in the knowledge available for real commercialisation. This skew can be reinforced by the attraction of the best students away from pure into applied science.
- Reduction in the spread of knowledge as more science becomes tied up by patents or by non-disclosure agreements especially in the pre-patent phase. The effects of this at international conferences already appear to be significant.
- Reduced career opportunities for students. This comes in part about because the traditional ways of measuring performance (theses, articles, conference papers etc) through exposure to scientific colleagues become less available, in part because of a narrowing of student focus that can then restrict subsequent job opportunities.
One side-effect of the decline in the traditional way of measuring performance is an increased emphasis on patents as a substitute for papers or articles. This has its own problems. Among other things, it can create an incentive for over-patenting.
In our view, resolution of these difficulties requires action at three levels.
At government level, there needs to be at least some focus on the provision of funding for scientific research and scholarship independent of commercial or commercialisation considerations.
At institutional level, we believe that there should be more focus on achieving balance between:
- Traditional academic teaching and research
- Tied research where the funding is provided in a way that is essentially fee for service
Independent internal research carried out in the hope of prospective commercialisation
At firm level, we believe that firms acquiring technology from or utilising university departments to develop or test technology should be prepared to consciously consider allowing the students and academics involved to write and speak about their work within the constraints set by necessary confidentiality.
Industry can be its own worst enemy here in that an over-obsessive emphasis on secrecy can in fact reduce the incentive for scientific students and staff to participate pro-actively in the targeted development of the technology.
A thought through policy on disclosure can benefit both sides.
Overcoming Complex Institutional Structures
The institutional structures involved in the commercialisation of science can be quite complex involving a number of parties:
- Students: Many scientific discoveries/projects involve students at honours or postgraduate levels working on different aspects of the problem. This can give rise to a number of problems including issues associated with the marking of theses and ownership of resulting IP. Failure to properly address these issues can and has resulted in subsequent commercial problems.
- Staff: Staff can be involved in research as part of their normal work paid for by the institution out of institution funds or from funds contributed to the institution by a commercial firm or some combination of the two. Staff may also work direct for a commercial firm within rules set by the institution. Again there is ample scope for confusion over IP issues.
- Institution commercialisation companies: Most universities have commercial arms that coordinate university resources to deliver commercial services and which may play a lead role in commercialisation on behalf of the University. The relationships between these bodies and other parts of the system can be complex and confusing.
- Institutions, including universities and CRCs. The CRCs themselves are usually consortia with links back into both commercial parties and universities. Each institution has its own policies and costing arrangements in regard to both the supply of services and science/technology commercialisation.
This complex mix can create major difficulties including slow and sometimes opaque decision processes, conflicts in expectations, unrealistic expectations and failure to properly protect IP.
There is no magic bullet that will suddenly solve these difficulties. However, they can be eased to some degree through the creation of protocols and processes within institutions to clarify and support the commercialisation process.
In saying this, we recognise that most if not all institutions now have established policies and procedures intended to support the commercialisation process. The problem from our perspective is that many of these appear to focus on governing rather than facilitating the process.
In our view, both institutions and industry would benefit from action to simplify and clarify institutional policies and procedures. There would also appear to be a case for more cooperation and information exchange between institutions on the process side, facilitating the creation of common templates and process documentation.
Managing Cultural Issues
Commercialisation approaches also need to take into account potential cultural clashes.
Effective commercialisation requires targeted research carried out against sometimes tight deadlines. Individual lines of research may need to be dropped, new lines started. As the research moves into the industrial test phase, an increasing proportion of researcher time needs to be spent supporting the mechanics, reducing real research time.
These requirements can conflict with the universities' own unique cultures and structures. Problems can include:
- Clashes between the academic curiosity that gave rise to the discovery in the first place and the need to devote an increasing proportion of time to the more mundane mechanics. This can be compounded by an unwillingness to give up pet topics and lines of research.
- Clashes between the way performance is measured and objectives set within the institution at personal, departmental and institutional level and project requirements.
Differences in time perspectives between university and commercial approaches. These differences can be compounded by institutional and industrial structures relating to the employment of staff. This may create problems, for example, if long working hours are required to make something work.
- Divided reporting lines. For example, researchers may have a direct report to the head of the Department, dotted line report to the commercial partner, giving rise to project management problems.
These difficulties may be minimised by moving the research out of the university at an early stage. However, this is not always possible, nor is it necessarily desirable from a university perspective since it can reduce the benefits that might otherwise be achieved.
In our view, the problem is best managed through proper definition up front of the management arrangements to be applied to the commercialisation project.
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