THEMES – TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER
Britain’s got talent – and leading universities are finding ways to convert it into hard cash via technology transfer. Charles Orton-Jones reports
The great mathematician Thomas Bayes lived and died in obscurity. He spent his earthly years preaching in a quiet corner of Tunbridge Wells. During his lifetime his entire published works amounted to just two tracts, one on the benevolence of God, the other a defence of calculus. It wasn’t until Bayes died in 1761 that a friend trawled his papers to discover his Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances, which was passed on to the Royal Society. It was an electric idea, explaining how to calculate the odds of something happening by factoring in prior knowledge. Bayes’ posthumously published ideas now form the foundation of an entire branch of maths. To pick just one example: the entrepreneur Mike Lynch built Autonomy into a £9 billion company on Bayesian logic. The obscure life of Thomas Bayes is what the technology transfer sector is designed to avoid. Its mission is to take great ideas and share them with the wider world as quickly as possible.
Universities look at a wide range of options. These include licensing ideas to the private sector, forming spin-outs, funding co-research with commercial partners, open sourcing intellectual property – and the old fashioned method of explaining concepts to whomever wants to listen.
The University of Hull offers a brilliant example. Haydn Ward graduated with a first class egree in chemistry in 2014. A day later he went to work at BemroseBooth Paragon (BBP), a Hull-based provider of parking and train tickets, as part of a knowledge transfer partnership with the University of Hull. His mission was to develop magnetic inks at BBP. Supported by the university’s partners Ward refined 10 types of magnetic ink, which are now used in rail tickets across the nation. The arrival of this young star through a knowledge transfer partnership is turning BBP into an international success story. It’s a simple yet classic example of how the university expertise can benefit the private sector.
UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH A LEADER
The University of Edinburgh is a world leader in technology transfer. It began commercialisation in earnest more than 40 years ago. From 2010-2015 Edinburgh negotiated 836 licence agreements bringing in £14 million a year in royalty income.
The university boasts 184 spin-outs and start-ups companies in the same time period – taking the total since 1967 to a remarkable 417. An independent impact report estimated that Edinburgh Research & Innovation (ERI), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the university which is responsible for technology transfer has supported 3,500 jobs worldwide and generated £200m annually.
“We’ll never stand still,” says Ian Sharp, head of marketing at ERI. “We continually look for ways to connect industry to our researchers.” One recent innovation has been the Academic Industry Meetings, or AIMdays. “AIM day is a one-day event at which challenges posed by companies around a central theme are tackled by a panel of academics in an hour-long workshop. The outcomes are to identify possible pathways to solutions. One pathway may be the potential for a licensing agreement or it can also lead to collaborative research projects with the company,” says Sharp. “We’ve been holding AIM days for three years and on average have one every three to four months around industry-led themes.”
When it comes to high profile achievements in the technology transfer arena the winner in 2016 must be the LiFi R&D centre, based at the Kings Buildings campus. LiFi means transmitting internet data using beams of light at speeds many multiples faster than current WiFi bandwidth. Advances at the LiFi centre are available through a “flexible collaboration” model. The LiFi research alone has been covered globally in journals from Wired magazine to El Pais in Spain. Spin-outs from Edinburgh are also always worth watching. Sharp singles out two favourites. “Particle Analytics have developed a software tool for manipulating particulate solids. The company is working with partners in pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and the chemical industries, allowing them to make significant savings when handling solids.” His second pick is student start-up, Two Big Ears, a creator of sound software for augmented reality and virtual reality. In May the start-up was acquired by Facebook as it prepares to launch the Oculus Rift VR headset.
BALANCE BETWEEN BLUE SKY AND APPLIED RESEARCH
Naturally, there is a balance to be struck between blue sky research and applying research outcomes. Sharp says: “At Edinburgh we have a rich history in terms of fundamental research. A Nobel laureate was awarded this year for Edinburgh alumnus Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart in Chemistry, and in 2013 with Professor Peter Higgs, who discovered the Higgs boson particle.”
Sharp says, “This pioneering science will always be at the forefront of the ethos of the University of Edinburgh and fits well with industry requirements for cutting-edge innovation.”
Naturally, the lure of riches is sometimes cited as a distraction for academics. Sharp admits it’s a challenge, but says there’s no trade-off: “At Edinburgh have a rich history in terms of fundamental research. We had a Nobel laureate this year with Fraser Stoddart in Chemistry, and last year with Peter Higgs, who discovered the Higgs boson particle. We want to do more of that, as well as more industry-oriented research. It’s a big question, yes, but we don’t see one at the expense of the other.”
In the Midlands lies a university keen to emulate Edinburgh’s success. The University of Leicester is an ‘up and comer’. “Some other universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and some of the London universities, are further down the road,” admits Dr Sandy Reid, the new head of spin-outs at Leicester. Although, she adds, no one really has the cracked the formula.
Dr Reid comes to Leicester after eight years as the CEO of a venture capital-backed
chemical company. She says she’ll be helping potential spin-outs with the nitty-gritty of forming a company, such as writing business plans and attracting investors. She’s got rich material to work with. “We have a technology partnership with Alstom,” says Dr Reid.
“And there’s the Impact doctoral centre for metal processing. We’ve pooled resources with Birmingham and Nottingham, and work with industrial partners such as Rolls-Royce, Tata Steel, and ESI. There’s the ASDEC centre for advanced vibrometry. The technology developed there has been made available to industry.” The use of lasers to measure vibration is ideal for the automotive industry. ASDEC’s location is Nuneaton, putting it in the heart of Motorsport Valley, home to prospective customers.
Dr Reid stresses that it is hard to measure a university’s ability to transfer technology to the wider world. “Some measure patents, or the number of spin-outs or licensing. But my personal view is that none of these capture the interactions a university has with industry, which can run from consultations to a conversation. Just publishing research gets the information in the public domain, which companies can pick up without the university ever noticing. So I don’t think you can measure it accurately.”
There’s no doubt British universities are now adept at sharing knowledge. The dark days of Thomas Bayes, toiling on papers with no hope of an audience, are long over.
The formula for success at Surrey Research Park
Surrey Research Park is the science campus owned by the University of Surrey. It was set up 30 years ago by Dr Malcolm Parry, who still runs it. The aim is to commercialise university technologies. The park now works with universities across southern England, owing to its scale, expertise and reputation. “We have around 140 companies in the Park,” says Dr Parry. “It’s hard to keep count and they come, grow, and merge.”
He adds that the companies come because, “We have entrepreneurs-in-residence. We offer access to talent, image and reputation, easy in-and-out contracts, a business angel club in the Park, and we coach people to work with angels.”
There’s a co-working centre for entrepreneurs in the computer games sector called Rocketdesk. It hosts games designers, music composers, video editors and website builders, who can collaborate side-by-side, and make use of facilities such as the university’s motion capture equipment. The location is a stone’s throw from EA Games office, the developer of the popular FIFA console game, and Criterion Games, maker of games such as Need for Speed. Plus there’s a 5G incubator on the campus. Vodafone, Huawei and Telefonica are involved.
What more does a start-up need? Tenants vary in size from one-man bands to full scale multinationals. SSTL is a spin-out from the University of Surrey that builds and operates small satellites. Today it employs 450, and is majority-owned by Airbus. “Out of SSTL come other spin-outs,” observes Dr Parry. “A company like that burgeons into a cluster.” The manufacturing side of the Park is improving. Dr Parry points to GnoSys, which helps manufacturers develop prototypes, and Unique Secure, which creates payment terminals, as two stand-out manufacturing prospects in the Park.
The appeal of the Park means other universities are drawn to it. MedPharm is producing a topical drug delivery technology, derived from work done at the University of Hertfordshire is a pharma company with a method of separating cells, on research at the University of Manchester. Angle isn’t tied to Surrey, says Dr Parry, it merely finds the Park the best place to be, and has been here since 1994.
The value of Surrey Research Park is clear. Dr Parry sums it up: “The Park is worth more than £100 million. And we’ve over £100m in cash from the Park, which has beento strengthen its research base. It’s met a target of independent income for the university, it is shared. And it has raised the profile of the university.”
Scotland’s new sensor programme
In 2013 the Scottish government invested £10 million in a scheme to promote technology transfer between universities and their respective industries in the sensor and imaging sector. The result, Censis, is now up and running and forming links between academics
and the private sector, with a target of 150 collaborative R&D projects.
The tie-up between the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHId) at the University of Dundee, and Amethyst Research, is a typical project. The partnership focusses on the use of infra-red light to identify evidence at crime scenes. Niamh Nic Daeid, professor of forensic science at the University of Dundee, says: “We are still in the early stages of this research, but will be exploring ways in which infra-red light could
be used to identify traces of material such as body fluids on surfaces like dark fabrics where they may be difficult to visualise, and as a consequence allow forensic teams to focus on potential evidence which may be relevant to an investigation.” Manish Jain, programme manager at Amethyst Research says: “In theory we’ll be able to take a 360 degree camera into a crime scene, scan a room, and identify old and freshly deposited material in real time.
“We think it might also be possible to adapt the technology to detect explosives and drugs, meaning the research might highlight wide ranging practical uses should it be successful. We are also exploring the potential for using the technology to identify trace material
obscured by deposits such as soot.” The idea came from a meeting of experts organised by CENSIS. Another project is based on work by academics at Glasgow Caledonian University to monitor oxygen levels in buildings, and take action to remedy it. The commercial partner is Cumbernauld-based Gas Sensing Solutions, which sees wide potential uses. Alan Henderson, managing director and co-founder of GSS, comments: “While this system could be used to improve air quality in an office, it could equally be employed in hospitals to monitor patients’conditions. With the right configuration, it has the ability to take action in response to any problems which could relieve some of the time pressure placed on medical staff by reacting to issues as they arise.” Overall, CENSIS is targeting the £7bn global sensor and imaging sector. It will give companies and universities the ability to work together on R&D and commercialisation.