Challenges and risks in innovation

Published On: 22 February 2022|

The reality is that there will be conflicts of interest when academics engage in entrepreneurship and commercialisation. What is important is to put policies and practices into place to deal with them, rather than trying to avoid them.

This was the key message from Ms Jaci Barnett (above), an expert from the Oxentia Ltd team and Head of Consulting Services at Oxford University Innovation, when leading a seminar on Challenges and Risks in Innovation, last week. The seminar was part of the Innovation Systems and Academic Entrepreneurship workshop of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme which took place from 16 to 17 February, funded by the British Council. The train-the-trainers workshop was facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd, Oxford’s global innovation consultancy.

South African born Barnett has impressive credentials. She has more than 15 years’ experience in research commercialisation and technology transfer. Until 2017, she was the Head of Research Commercialisation and Investment at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and, prior to that, was Director of the Innovation Office at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa for more than 10 years.

Barnett outlined some of the risks facing universities and institutions of higher learning.

“There are some serious challenges when transferring research results to industry, including overselling of results and miscommunication with our commercial partners.”

An example she gave was from personal experience: “The people who wanted to start a company and use our technology believed that it was ready to take to market. From our presentation they heard what they wanted to hear. ‘We’ve done it and we have done it at scale, and we have lots of product.’ However, this wasn’t the case and there was still lots of development ahead. So, we need to be really clear that what we are telling our partners and what they are hearing are the same thing.”

Reproducibility is another major issue when it comes to commercialisation – in one meta-study only six out of 53 landmark studies in oncology research were reproducible. “If research is not reproducible outside of the research facility, it is a huge issue for the new venture or our industry partner,” Barnett emphasised. Some of this may be down to statistical errors such as using too few data points or the wrong tests. Solutions for technology transfer offices include having external reviews of data.

“Something which is a red flag to me, as a tech transfer professional, is an academic who has not had any peer review of their data.” she says. “Yes, you don’t want it in the public domain before patenting, but at some point there needs to be peer review.”

Ms Barnett also spoke about managing conflicts of interest that arise during commercialisation. “Conflicts of interest have been made more acute by the fact that large sums of money may be involved. The academic’s loyalty may be split between their private interests and those of the university and, even if the person acts with complete integrity, motives can be questioned. The university can also be (or appear to be) conflicted. Usually there are in-built checks and balances, but these can break down if personal incentives are too great.”

If conflicts are not adequately managed, there can be both financial loss and reputational damage to the university, injustices to young staff and students and academic distraction.

“It’s always useful to ask yourself whether the activity would sound reasonable to the ordinary person, the taxpayer: you’ve used university money to do X, Y and Z and you are going to personally benefit from it as well?”

So, what measures should be implemented to resolve potential conflicts of interest?

“The university could sit back and do nothing. This could lead to major institutional reputational damage when a policy is only implemented following a bad experience,” she said.

“There is also the choice to ban problem activities, but this is not a good outcome except for the most unmanageable conflict and, for most institutions, will kill all academia-led ‘commercial’ activity. When a university has technology transfer offices (TTOs), the decision is often made to micromanage activities and the TTO plays a role in the initial spin-out companies, knows where the conflicts are and ensures that they are managed. However, as the activity grows and expands, this becomes almost impossible to handle. Encouraging full disclosure is a vital part of any solution.”

The best way, says Barnett, is a mixture of the above – some activities may be banned, full disclosure is a pre-requisite and activities are managed where possible. Additional checks and balances such as second supervisors and a research oversight should be implemented. Academics should not be part of negotiations. Universities need specific examples in policies that are drawn up. And any management decisions must be fast moving and decisive.

“A conflict-of-interest disclosure seeking a decision cannot go through endless time consuming committees, says Barnett. “If you want to have an entrepreneurial university, recognise that conflicts will happen and have systems in place to manage them quickly and decisively.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.