The Global Corporate Venturing Symposium, run by our sister title, was a suitable opportunity to launch the Research to Commercialisation Club to bring together the leading research centres, such as Uni-Hospital in Zurich and Cleveland Clinic and Partners Healthcare in the US, with the entrepreneurs and corporations that offer investment, partnerships and exit routes to academic-inspired start-ups.
Our sister publication Global Corporate Venturing (GCV) hosted its third annual Power Brokers Symposium in London this past week, which reached a high point with a speech from the 45th Vice President of the US Al Gore.
An avid historian with his mind firmly concentrated on the future, Gore’s speech was off-record but attendees afterward spoke of buying into his vision for an innovation-led sustainable capitalism that would be driven by the corporates, venture capitalists and university representatives.
It was, therefore, a suitable opportunity to launch the Research to Commercialisation Club to bring together the leading research centres, such as Uni-Hospital in Zurich and Cleveland Clinic and Partners Healthcare in the US, with the entrepreneurs and corporations that offer investment, partnerships and exit routes to academic-inspired start-ups.
Wanting to explore how higher education institutions could collaborate better with venture investors, I joined a roundtable hosted by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer’s (NCET2) executive director Tony Stanco for a lively debate about university commercialisation which spun out many talking points from voices around the sector.
Universities are often the spearhead of innovation in terms of spin-outs and related start-ups. Yet opportunities and data coming out from incubators and tech clusters remains insubstantial for corporate and venture investors. Investors can see that universities are filled to the brim with great ideas, but identifying the best and coaxing them out remains a battle for the business world. Also, the transition from a great idea to a complete package that would entice investment often falls short.
An active, supportive tech cluster is often the solution and the question of what makes a successful tech cluster, and how aspiring clusters can attract further talent and investment was raised. In the case of the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London, a combination of factors lead to their success. The prestigious names bring in a high calibre of student, but it is also the culture of the area, the research being conducted and the availability of investment that leads to the Golden Triangle’s strong commercialisation output.
It was suggested that universities need to do more to support development of an entrepreneurial community around campus in order to foster stronger links between research and business. Closer bonds would lead to increased collaboration on spin-outs, providing the whole business package that investors seek.
In many areas, this is arguably already being worked towards. But with further development and engagement by universities with these tech clusters, it becomes a self-reciprocating sustainable cycle whereby spin-outs that develop further stay in the cluster and go on to attract more talent and fuel growth, paying back to the university in both terms of revenues and prestige for larger research contracts.
This led to a discussion about the metrics of success that universities could score their tech transfer efforts by, and generate stronger data in the process.
Spin-out rates was the first suggestion. An obvious indicator of the vitality of a university’s drive to commercialisation comes from how many new firms it can start with its research. However, spin-out rates alone only provide a one-axis graph that tells a fraction of the story. It was suggested that spin-out rates need to be tethered to another metric in order to demonstrate a healthy tech transfer programme, with either a three-year survival rate or amount of external investment attracted making for strong contenders.
The ability to attract venture capitalists was also fielded as a potential stand-alone metric, as were successful alumni and a university’s licensing engagement with its local SME community. Most importantly though was what a commercialisation strategy brings back to its parent university in terms of raising the level of research conducted.
Recent developments in the UK and US suggest that collaboration to foster stronger spin outs is definitely on the right track. But, more conversations such as the ones that NCET2 are having at GCV’s symposium and around the US need to take place in order to better understand how best to develop and support the community, leading to a more sustainable form of capitalism in the future.