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Is "tech transfer" a danger to academic freedom?

Debate rages over whether the presence of business on campuses spell a threat or an opportunity for scientific research

Dr Leon Henderson is explaining how lorries could reduce their braking speed by 25 per cent.

Amir Chaudhry encourages individuals to bypass internet giants and build their own secure space in the Cloud via Nymote.

Qibin Zhao demonstrates alluring ribbons of iridescent colour formed from polymer opals that bend, stretch and change colour: a cheap, non-toxic wonder fabric for the textile and coating industries.

The trio are among a larger group of bright young minds trying to impress an assembled audience in the lofty, but entirely unfusty, Hauser Forum on the Cambridge Science Park. Most of the 25 presenters have a doctorate: the event is more University Challenge than Dragons’ Den.

It’s a cold winter’s night but the atmosphere is warm and convivial as the Network brings together campus and corporations in the area that has become known as Silicon Fen, the biggest technology hub in the UK, employing 54,000 people.

Britain has long bemoaned its failing status as a place where things are made. Textile mills in Lancashire; shoemakers in Leicester; car plants in Luton are all either dwindling or gone. The percentage of workers in the manufacturing sector continues to fall as the era of mass employment in industry follows the era of mass employment in agriculture into history (field workers in Bedfordshire villages literally walked off the land and into Luton to take jobs in the new car factories).

But high-tech science and engineering are a different story. Silicon Fen is home to domestic and foreign firms that invent and test the kind of gadgets the 21st century needs but which few other places on Earth have the collective brainpower to devise. Perhaps the most successful company here is ARM, whose processors inform the silicon chips in iPads, iPhones and many other smartphones.

As with Apple itself, ARM does not manufacture anything – most chips are made in Taiwan. The Cambridge Science Park is not an industrial centre. It is full of suitably sleek and interesting buildings with bespoke fountains, but there isn’t a lorry or pallet in sight. That is because there is little but Intellectual Property (IP) to export. And the likes of Henderson, Chaudhry and Zhao are vital to keeping production levels of IP high.

Back inside the brightly-coloured Hauser Forum, patent lawyers rub shoulders with venture capitalists, university academics and wealthy individuals, known in this world as angel investors. The presenters form the youngest cadre in the room and at times it shows. A couple mumble incoherently into the microphone before the bell cruelly brings an end to their two-minute pitch. Many struggle to make themselves heard in their second or third language. None is helped by a dodgy loudspeaker connection.

Irony of poor technology aside, the overwhelming spirit is of exciting discovery as the academics express how their research might make the world a better place. They themselves expressed little recognition of the enterprise value of their research.

That distinction was evident when various presenters were asked afterwards about their work. Some projects were sponsored by big companies: BP, Phillips, Scania, GlaxoSmithKline. Several of the funding companies are part of the ecosphere of Silicon Fen and this evening is as much for them to understand the University’s potential as it is for the next Google to be spun out and make a billionaire of its youthful founders.

Dr Henderson, for example, isn’t sure who owns the revolutionary control valve responsible for much of the saving on lorries’ braking distances. Another presenter, who develops graphene for Philips, reckons the Dutch company could get the material made in numerous places – Cambridge just happens to be an excellent research partner.

Few of the presenters were jealously guarding any IP of their own. With his disruptive internet pitch, Chaudhry, perhaps unsurprisingly, seemed the most entrepreneurial – ready to take revenue away from all those former revolutionaries such as Google that now appear to be domineering havealots.

But most presenters have far more traditional goals. “My aim is to secure an academic post and to do that requires publishing recognised papers,” said one.

Welcome to the peculiar ecosphere of a Science Park containing research centres for both hi-tech businesses and a premier university. Some people have nothing but their cherished academic ideas to pursue; others are there to recognise the commercial potential of those ideas.

The evening may be far too civil for Dragons’ Den but there are real-life investors in the building. The Hauser Forum is named after the co-host of this evening, Dr Herman Hauser, a distinguished academic physicist and partner at Amadeus Capital, a venture capital firm based in Cambridge.

Mike Lynch, former head of Autonomy, one of the UK’s most successful tech firms, and now a venture capitalist himself, is on the guestlist.

Some may feel uncomfortable about the trend of marrying private money to public-sector research. Surely universities are places for learning not for profit? Venture capitalists could be lumped together with tuition fees as part of the excessive application of free-market forces to tertiary education.

Such critics wouldn’t be heartened by the comment by one London-based financier that part of the success of university venture capital is the swift removal of academics from running any enterprise based on their ideas. Venture capitalists prefer to see a proven business leader at the helm as soon as possible.

So far so bad. But then one is left with the question of how the great ideas represented in Cambridge this night ought to come to fruition.

Britain became a global superpower by pillaging other countries’ natural wealth. But it maintained that status in the 18th and 19th century thanks to scientific invention. Government can fund university research but industry and its financiers have to turn those inventions into employment, whether it is developing safer brakes for lorries or selling pearlescent coatings.

The process is known as tech transfer, and how to make the best job of it is a periodic preoccupation of both Whitehall and Westminster.

Historically, universities themselves have not been great at commercialising their own inventions. This has been because many see profiteering from academic discoveries as wrong. This was the case way back in 1879 when Ira Ramsen at John Hopkins University in New York declined the opportunity to patent saccharin.

The Wellcome Trust worries about the consequences of expecting leading academic institutions to earn more from selling their capabilities to commercial organisations.

In a submission to a parliamentary committee hearing on tech transfer, the Trust warned that “the Government’s ambition for university knowledge exchange income from external sources to grow by 10 per cent over the next three years [...] will encourage universities to see their interactions with businesses within a context of short-term revenue generation, rather than sharing knowledge for longer-term public benefit. It may dissuade them from seeking out local partnerships that will create jobs and see intellectual property retained within the UK, if greater profit can be made from licensing technology internationally.”

Others are more sanguine that private-sector funding will both increase the likelihood of more local jobs and bring revenue back to universities. The head of one tech transfer department said “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to commercialising university ideas, although he warned that investors have to be patient with their capital. Even with the help of tech transfer offices and the ecosphere around the likes of Cambridge, brilliant ideas from academia can still take more than a decade to earn any serious revenue.

Investors tend to think in terms of one, three and five-year returns. But the good news is that most of the venture capital funding start-up businesses from UK universities comes from British investors with a little more patience, notably the angels. Some may be neutral regarding who licenses the emerging technology, in contrast to the Wellcome Trust. But others, such as Strathclyde Pension Fund, want to support their local economy and have a longevity almost as durable as the universities whence these great ideas come.

The same is true of the Wellcome Trust itself. It has for decades contributed a sizeable chunk to medical research by UK academics, but the funding comes from stockmarket investments. Recently, Wellcome set up a specialist venture capital unit to focus on healthcare start-ups. The unit promises to take the long-view in backing business, not look for short-term gains.

Outside the Hauser Forum in Cambridge, the crowd begins to disperse. It is too cold to stand around chatting. A couple of the young presenters eye enviously a gleaming Porsche in the car park before setting off on their bicycles home.

Brendan specialises in explaining public and private welfare systems. He writes about how people save and the business of saving, for the Financial Times and Investments & Pensions Europe among other publications. He is currently investigating the commercialisation of Intellectual Property within universities. He began his journalist career with the FT Group.

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