Friday, 27 January 2012

Spin-out vs Start-up

Last year, during the lunch break at a Captum Valuation MasterClass, I was seated between the technology transfer director of one of the UK's leading life science charities, and a technology transfer manager from one of the colleges of the University of London.  By way of an ice breaker, and in my usual non-argumentative style, I suggested that the job of universities was to train highly competent scientists and engineers, and not to commercialize technology.  I argued that universities were not in fact very good at commercial activities, and that government initiatives to promote the licensing of academic research were misplaced.  I should explain at this point that I am only talking about the UK, and that my alma mater Imperial College is clearly the exception to this rule, Imperial Innovation being among the stars of the AIM market.

To my surprise, these two very senior and experienced technology transfer executives agreed with me.  It would be more beneficial, we felt, if such government funds as were available were directed at encouraging newly qualified graduates, PhDs, post-docs, to start-up leading edge technology businesses, rather than attempting to force licenses and the creation of spin-offs from universities.  It is the newly minted scientists and engineers who have state-of-the-art technology at their fingertips, and all the confidence, energy and enthusiasm in the world, albeit with a slight deficiency in business acumen.

The recent move by the University of Glasgow, followed by others, to make their intellectual property open source, would seem to suggest a tacit recognition of the point we made at lunch.  Not everyone agrees, e.g. Imperial and Oxford are unlikely to follow suit.  Neither it seems, does the Technology Strategy Board who last year sent me a survey attempting to solicit ideas on how to make university technology transfer more effective.

One final point is my caveat that I am only speaking of the UK. My US alma mater, MIT, has a long history of successful technology commercialization, but also actively encourages its graduates to start-up companies of their own.  In 2009 it was estimated that annual sales of worldwide companies started by MIT graduates was $2 trillion, making such companies collectively equivalent to the 11th largest economy in the world.  Now why can't the UK do that?  A topic for another time.

Friday, 20 January 2012

I've been meaning to start a blog on my views on technology innovation for some time, and the start of a New Year is as good a time as any.  So, here goes.

Why do I have anything to say about technology innovation?  Becaue I have had a lifetime of involvement in it.  From the time when I was post doc in Buffalo NY when I did what I thought were interesting things with membranes which would now be called imedance spectroscopy, and incidentally created an algorithm ADDFIT, which for the first time allowed standard addition methods to be used with logaritmically responding electrodes, and is now widely used, I have been fascinated by technology innovation.  I've done other things with more impact along the way, like developing the first high speed electrodes for blood electrolytes, which changed the world from using flame photometers.  And I also headed the team responsible for the first on-vehicle demostration of a liquid fueleld fuel cell/battery hybrid.

That's enough introduction.  More later