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University Intellectual Property: A Source of Finance and Impact

Cover of  by Graham Richards

University Intellectual Property: A Source of Finance and Impact, by Graham Richards, (Hampshire: Harriman House Ltd, 2012), 162pp., £30.

This is a timely publication on the utilisation of university research outputs to generate additional value and returns to the respective institutions and financiers of research. As universities are under increasing pressure to justify the research income they receive from public, government and charitable funding bodies, being able to demonstrate impact and generate financial returns from research is ever more important. Many, if not all, universities are influencing their research base to fulfil the institution?s obligations to deliver impact from the research. Thus higher education institutes (HEIs) find themselves at a crossroads of endeavouring to stay true to their original purpose of delivering education and disseminating knowledge for public benefit and attracting research grant income to support their research activities, while generating additional income streams from commercial activity and the pursuit of valuable IP.
This book aims to address several key issues that are driving this shift-change in HEIs: What constitutes intellectual property? Do academics or universities own IP? Does the commercialisation of IP have an impact on academic freedom? How can IP best be exploited and who should be financially rewarded when it is? What assistance can governments and other bodies provide? By collecting the opinions of a variety of stakeholders who have experience in the world of commercialisation of university derived IP, this book offers a varied perspective of university IP commercialisation and the role of HEIs in the past and in the future. Case studies are used throughout the text to illustrate perspectives and exemplify where barriers and tension points can, and do, arise. Additional sources of information and recommendations are provided throughout the text, enabling the reader to delve deeper into specific areas of interest, following on from a good introduction to a topic.
The contributors to the chapters offer differing and insightful views on the trials and tribulations of applying intellectual property laws and commercialisation practices to academic institutions. By the very nature of trying to align these goliaths of function, there are bound to be areas where improvements could and should be made. Opinions are garnered from a range of experts including those of a former high court judge, a senior lawyer, a patent attorney and those involved in the technology transfer and knowledge exchange profession. The legal perspective provided of enforcing IP protection sets the backdrop with which commercialisation of academic research must co-exist and to which it must conform if it is be successful and generate the desired returns. The interest in patents, in particular, has grown and attitudes towards them have changed in many academic circles. Once the antithesis of an academic?s primary function of disseminating knowledge freely, patents have entered the agenda of many an academic?s research goals.
The reader is provided with an account from a senior patent attorney who appreciates the difficulty in translating pure research into a commercially viable product. Using case studies, the timeline and effort required to perform this turn and the collaborative efforts of those involved to produce an industrially relevant technology are described. Naturally, an insight into the role of the patent attorney in this process and the drafting and filing of a good commercial patent and how to generate commercial value from his process is provided.
The often complex process of technology transfer is examined, along with the different mechanisms by which income and impact is generated, by way of return for use of university IP. A comparison of some of the current mechanisms that have been adopted by universities to ease this transfer is provided, along with areas that technology transfer offices within universities could do with re-assessing, the focus being on making the interaction between universities and commercial entities easier and better informed by both sides, so as to provide a more efficient and effective transfer process.
A particular highlight of this book was the chapter by Roya Ghafele, ?Waking a Sleeping Giant: Commercialising University Research?, who describes a ?third way? of research commercialisation through focusing on the leverage of networks among various academic institutions for co-operation and knowledge clusters. The business model of a university is put under the microscope, along with the overall efficiency, or inefficiency, of protecting ownership of knowledge through IP protection and the resultant income that may generate. The drivers for academics to publish research over maintaining secrecy of their recent findings to secure IP protection raises the issue of how academics are incentivised and the mechanism for their career progression. The more an academic is quoted by peers, the better their career prospects. Ghafele compares this model of knowledge sharing to the open source software movement and the trade of free knowledge for the secondary, academic, benefit of securing further research income.
As more universities look to leverage additional, commercial, value from their research outputs, through the protection of IP, there is the potential for conflicts between a HEI?s primary purpose and that of its commercial leniency. The book finishes with a rather provocative assessment of whether funding sources are driving HEIs and their academic community towards commercial, translational research and away from the pure academic ?blue sky? research. As many funding bodies look for a return on their investment or at least a tangible output, this drives grant proposals to be tailored towards that goal, especially where large translational awards are up for grabs. But is this at the expense of the academic?s freedom and the academic institution?s primary aim of developing and disseminating knowledge? Currently academic research is at a nexus of contractual obligations; in order to preserve that freedom there needs to be more cultural awareness and education of how those obligations may impact on research aims, and agreements should be entered into accordingly.
In conclusion, this book highlights the issues and the competing forces that influence and determine the advancement of knowledge generated within HEIs and its ultimate application in society. While this is a complex area, with many opinions on where improvements and efficiencies can be made, what is presented is a good overview of some of the key determinates in university commercialisation practices.
This book is suited to those who want to learn about the idiosyncrasies and various factors that influence the commercialisation and exploitation of university research. It offers the reader a historical précis to set the context by which this sector now operates, and provides insights into to how it may operate in the future. By addressing the key issues and pinch-points along the pathway from original research to commercial product, the reader benefits from a variety of perspectives to produce a coherent overview of university IP exploitation, as it stands today. There is no doubt that this landscape is changing and it will be interesting to see if any of the conflicting views presented are resolved, or change, as universities adapt to this new environment.

Tim Whitworth
IP & Commercialisation Manager, University of Leeds

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