Commercialising university research often starts with existing relationships

Published On: 18 March 2022|

The AstraZeneca vaccine for CoVID-19 is a prime example to illustrate the process it takes, and the value that lies in commercialising university research. This was highlighted by a technology transfer expert at Universities South Africa’s two-day workshop held for universities’ senior executives last week, in Cape Town.

Addressing the Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) workshop virtually from the United Kingdom last Wednesday, Mr Tom Hockaday (above), said, “The Oxford AstraZeneca COVID vaccine happened partly because there were senior people in the university who knew senior people in AstraZeneca. They could literally pick up the phone and say, ‘Hi, mate, let’s talk about this’ because they knew each other, because they had a relationship, and the transaction and the deal followed from that.”

Hockaday, who was CEO of Oxford University Innovation’s Consultancy from 2006 until March 2016, used the development of AstraZeneca to stress why universities need to focus on the importance of building the innovation community. “People do deals with people they know”, he said. And Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) could home in on that, and build relationships with people, because “it’s really all about people”, he said.

He referred to AstraZeneca many times throughout his presentation in the session on Setting the scene & building an understanding around commercialisation of research at the ELW. This workshop is an annual initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE), which is a programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) being administered and implemented under Universities South Africa (USAf).

The purpose of the Executive Leadership Workshop is to grow the number of institutions positioned as entrepreneurial universities and provide an opportunity for deputy vice-chancellors, in particular, as well as executive directors and other senior leaders in entrepreneurship development, to engage on entrepreneurship at universities, specifically as it relates to university strategy and policy.

Why tech transfer helped develop the vaccine

Hockaday said he supported the definition of technology transfer at universities as being about transferring the brilliance of academic research results to business, so that new products, services and medicines can be developed to benefit society. He said it was interesting to note that this statement did not make any mention of making money.

He said AstraZeneca showed how sometimes, and he stressed it was only sometimes, “the commercial route is the best way to deliver benefits from university research results”.

He said the AstraZeneca vaccine was developed at the University of Oxford in its research labs, and the technology transferred via the TTO to AstraZeneca, who then developed it along with government support, and made it available to benefit society.

“There is no way that the university itself, even with the involvement of the amazing not-for-profit organizations that are involved, could have developed and delivered this successfully. So sometimes working with industry is the right and the best thing to do,” said Hockaday, who is the author of University Technology Transfer – What It Is and How to Do It, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2020.

Since leaving the University of Oxford, he has founded the Oxford-based consultancy, Technology Transfer Innovation, which provides university-business expertise to universities, investors and governments. And he has a South African connection in that he chairs the Investment Committee of the University Technology Fund here.

Hockaday was addressing mostly deputy vice-chancellors and other key executives from South Africa’s universities who are responsible for entrepreneurship and innovation, and, even more importantly, strategy and policy.  Attended mostly in-person, the workshop was delivered in a hybrid format and was presented in collaboration with the British Council.  The EDHE programme itself is supported mainly by the Department of Higher Education and Training’s University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP) aimed at advancing transformation.

The balancing act between income and impact

Hockaday mentioned AstraZeneca again when he said technology transfer offices needed to determine whether they existed for income, or for the impact they could generate. He referred to this as the “income/impact balance”. If the university commercialisation is generating income, is it also generating impact? “Well, yes, probably. But is it the sort of impact you wanted?” he asked.

He said Oxford chose AstraZeneca “because they were committed to a not-for-profit delivery of the vaccine during the pandemic. They did not want to choose a profit maximisation route with some of the other companies.”

Still focusing on the income/impact balance, he argued: “If you’re generating impact, might you be generating income?” And the answer was that it wasn’t a certainty.

“At the tech transfer stage, when you’re trying to evaluate, protect, market, do your deal, you don’t really know. You don’t really know what the financial return on this particular opportunity will be. Because it hasn’t gone out to business. It hasn’t met customers. It hasn’t been marketed,” he said. And it hasn’t engaged with real commercial business.

Therefore, he believed, TTOs needed to focus on doing lots of deals and being generous.  “Transfer the stuff out there so that business can do what it does. It’s far better to do the deal than not do the deal,” he said. “And if you’re really trying to generate impact from your research, why are you negotiating so hard on the financial terms that might kill the deal?”

The sticky question of money

The big question, said Hockaday, is: “If you’re doing it for the impact, not the money, and it incurs a cost, how do you pay for it?” Especially if the university says you must make money to pay for yourselves. An impact approach to the commercialisation of research, where you are trying to support society, means you can manage a broader range of projects, and focus on relationships and partnerships. “It’s a bold decision but the university needs to recognise this and work out how to pay for it,” he said.

Looking at technology transfer activities at the University of Oxford from 1990 to 2020, he said there was slow growth at first. There was a distinct connection between the amount of money that was coming in and the number of people employed at the TTO.

It was also helped by strong university support – £1m in 2000 increasing to about £5m annually these days. “Now it gets a lot more back than that. But one of the things this shows is that the more you put in, the more you get out. And that’s one of the main messages I want to convey: university technology transfer doesn’t happen on its own. It needs help. It needs support, it needs resources.”

This led to the question of who decides the amount of resource allocated to research commercialisation. It was probably not the TTO. It could, maybe, be the government, depending on the amount they have available for support. “Is it the university, the leadership, the academics who often complain about the lack of resource or certainly complain about the lack of turnaround time for the tech transfer office?”

Hockaday said he thought it was helpful for tech transfer people to recognise that “in fact, it’s the researchers, the leadership of the university, who decide how much resource goes in”.

How to improve the TTO

He said if a university had an engineering department that was OK but needed to be better, would it hire better engineers or would it “complain and kick the ones you’ve got”? He said his experience was that when a university wants a better TTO, it tended to take the latter approach, which was “hugely regrettable and counterproductive”.

The skills needed for tech transfer were complicated and included what could be referred to as technical skills, such as information about intellectual property management, research collaboration agreements, confidentiality, licensing and investment shareholding agreements – across every research discipline.

There were also people management skills such as managing the expectation of researchers and the university government, negotiation and networking skills, and knowing about starting new businesses and growing them.

He acknowledged the huge expectation on tech transfer and the people who did it. “We need to recognise that this is really, really difficult and you’re probably good at it. Recognise it’s difficult, recognise it needs resource. Recognise we’re good at it, but sure, let’s try and get better,” said Hockaday.

The two questions for the TTO

Whatever its name – and the TTO could be known as the entrepreneurship office, the impact office, the innovation office, the research support office – universities need to think about what its purpose is within the institution. And Hockaday thinks it is useful to write that down as a purpose statement. The first question to ask is: “What do we want? What are we trying to achieve? What are our objectives?” and question two is: “How can we achieve that?”

Most universities start with the second question, which doesn’t help as they need to consider the choices inherent in the first one.

The model they worked on in Oxford was “The technology transfer office helps researchers who want to commercialise the results of their research”. The key word was “help”. The TTO helps. “And the challenge is that researchers are the ones who get to define what help is,” he said.

He said they found this statement very helpful, making them think about how the TTO was helping researchers do what they wanted to do.

The latest trends

Hockaday said he used the words technology transfer, which he sees as the core of this commercialisation activity. It is also known as knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, wider engagement, the third mission of universities, impact and, the latest word in Europe, “valorisation” (to give value to).

Not only has the language evolved but there are also trends universities needed to consider. These include how TTOs can support social enterprises as well as for-profit enterprises; as well as research in the social sciences, the arts and humanities.

The McMillan Review was a breakthrough in the UK

Trevor McMillan, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University near Newcastle in the UK, headed the 2016 review of technology transfer that helped universities understand what it was all about, said Hockaday, referring to it as a “significant breakthrough”. Its main comments were that universities do technology transfer as part of their mission to deliver impact for society. And it usually incurs a net cost for universities.

How to get better at tech transfer in a university – a summary

First work what do you want, then how to do, and here the income/impact can help frame this conversation.

Recognise the more you put in, the more you get out – and this is not just about money, but also quality. It takes leadership, management, and people resources.

Experience shows this activity will cost you money, but it is an investment by the university in something that is core and central to your mission. Connect the activities of the office to what the university cares about and connect the objectives.

And keep talking about what you are trying to achieve, said Hockaday.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.