Entrepreneurship and innovation are being touted as a way forward for individuals faced with the challenges of the recession. We talked to Dr. Markus Perkmann, Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College Business School, about the role universities have to play in developing innovation to stimulate the economy.
What role do universities have to play related to entrepreneurship in the current economic climate?
It’s a highly contested question. A lot of people, some policy makers included, believe that universities can play a very big role in stimulating innovation, in the sense that the technologies being generated at universities could be commercialised and lead to new companies, job growth and so on. Having said that, a lot of the technologies that are generated at universities are at a very embryonic stage. Hence the value of a lot of the knowledge produced at universities, even if it’s patented, is quite low commercially speaking. The knowledge that’s being produced contributes to science, to public discussion in journals. Academics often focus their careers around publishing as much as possible, so they are not always commercially-focused.
While commercialization has its place – and we have the evidence to prove it – the primary long-term role of universities remains education. It’s about educating the workforce and developing highly skilled human capital, which in the long term will lead to innovation. This is not an immediate process as it takes graduates some time to grow into their jobs and contribute to innovation and growth. Spin-out companies are more immediate – Imperial, for example, has generated 81 so far. Even though these firms make important contributions, it’s probably too much to expect universities to single-handedly turn around the economy by looking at them as a treasure of knowledge that’s just there on the shelves waiting to be activated.
What is really important is to have good universities that produce excellent science and provide first-class education. Close interaction between universities and industry can help achieve this. Our research suggests that there is a lot of value in collaboration between universities and companies. This helps academics to find new topics, and it may provide the ground for patents or other intellectual property that may get commercialized later down the line.
Are universities making best use of their intellectual property (IP)? How do you think universities could maximize the potential of their IP?
A long time ago, universities didn’t care about IP. And then around 1980 there was a law in the US that put universities in charge of their own IP and gave them a mandate to commercialise it. Since then, a whole movement has started of professionalising IP management at universities which has resulted in the emergence of Technology Transfer Offices. More recently, a lot of universities have realised they need to reintegrate TTOs with their broader business engagement strategies, which include collaboration with industry.
Increasingly universities are realising that not all collaborations need to focus on extracting as much IP as possible. In some cases, they need to be softer on IP and focus on collaborating. There are also examples where universities are relinquishing rights to IP companies when working together with companies because the proponents believe IP is too much of an overhead.
Overall, my view is: horses for courses. In some instances where it’s about developing new drugs, it’s about IP, so that’s clear cut. However, for more upstream research and development, the value of IP may be too low. Hence it may be better to say let’s do without it and make everything open. There are some examples in pharmaceutical R&D right now. This can make collaboration faster, more effective and more impactful because more people can draw on the results which are laid open.