Latest data shows university/industry engagement happens in many ways, most of them bigger and more effective than commercialisation

KCA welcomes the publication of the National Survey of Research Commercialisation by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

The National Survey of Research Commercialisation (NSRC) has been collecting data relating to the sale of public sector intellectual property since 2000.  The data collected for 2014 can be used in conjunction with previous year’s data to paint a picture of some of the outcomes resulting from Australian research engaging with business and government both locally and internationally.

In terms of high level indications from the data, we note that:

  • Company creation has fallen significantly
  • Commercialisation activity remains stable and
  • Industry partnerships have grown significantly

The approach to company creation within universities has changed tangibly over the past few years, with less of a focus now on spin-out creation (where the university would have a licensing and equity interest in the company), and now more of a focus on supporting the surge in student startup activity.  These are considerably different activities for universities to be involved with, and are often carried out in different parts of the university.  We will work with the Department to explore how all startup activity is appropriately captured in future years.

Given the long lead/lag-time on IP commercialisation, which is often ten years or more, the recent outcomes we see for commercialisation tend to result from activity which occurred quite some time ago.  It is also important to note that the influence of Government policy and support programs takes a significantly long time to feed into the system, and current data reflects the end product of programs past.

On the other hand, company creation and research partnerships happen across a much shorter timescale (typically 1 to 3 years) and the data may be suggesting a trend that has been anecdotal until now.  That is, the sector has been moving over the past few years, from having a very strong focus on IP commercialisation and spin-out company creation, towards one of research partnerships with industry.

There are two particular data sets that we want to highlight:

  1. Income from commercialisation

Table 5.1.3: Income yielded from active LOAs (AU$ Million)*

2012 2013 2014
PFRAs 294 45 46
UNIs 36 74 61
MRIs 29 9 29
Totals 358 129 136

 

Table 5.1.3. shows that the university sector, as a whole, generated AU$61million of income from licences in 2014.

  1. Income from other engagement mechanisms

Table 5.5: Value of contracts, consultancies and collaborations (AU$ Million)*

2012 2013 2014
PFRAs 417 391 384
UNIs 951 1,168 1,352
MRIs 40 39 72
Total 1,408 1,598 1,808

 

Whereas when we look at table 5.5, we see that the university sector generated AU$1.3billion of combined income from consultancies, contract research and development and collaborations, which are activities which reflect research organisations working with industry.  Interestingly, this figure of income which relates to money earnt from industry for our research and consultancy is two orders of magnitude greater than commercialisation income – and it’s growing at a continuous rate.

The data therefore suggests that engagement mechanisms such as consultancies, contract research and collaborations appear to be much more accurate reflection of activity and engagement between business and research compared to the traditional measure of commercialisation of IP.

But is this a unique feature of the Australian system?  The answer is no.  Data from the UK analysing HEIF data on university/industry engagement shows the spread of activity across the range of engagement mechanisms:

Knowledge exchange mechanism % Revenue
Contract research 34
Collaborative research 23
CPD and continuing education 20
Consultancy 11
Regeneration and development programmes 5
Facilities and equipment services 4
Intellectual property (including sale of shares) 2

 
TOMAS COATES ULRICHSEN: Knowledge Exchange Performance and the Impact of HEIF in the English Higher Education Sector Report for HEFCE April 2014

This table surprises many, but not those of us in the Technology Transfer community.  We know that while IP commercialisation is very important, it is in fact a relatively small activity in terms of overall university revenue from industry.   Taking the data from the NSRC and considering our commercialisation income to be the last category and research contracts and consultancies to represent all of the others combined, the Australian data would suggest:

Knowledge exchange mechanism % Revenue
All other Engagement mechanisms 95.5
Intellectual property (including sale of shares) 4.5

 
It’s the same order of magnitude and, if we really wanted to, we could argue that we are twice as good as the UK at commercialising IP – but we aren’t going to do that.

What we will say though is that we need a broader view of university/industry engagement beyond a single OECD chart and beyond IP commercialisation income.  Let’s recognise that university/industry engagement happens in many ways, most of them bigger and more effective than commercialisation.  Let’s recognise them and reward them as these are the ways that our research actually gets translated into the economy to deliver benefits to the tax-payer who funded it.

Dr Kevin Cullen
KCA Vice-Chair, Metrics
CEO, UNSW Innovations

*These tables have been sourced from the data summary report produced by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science available here.

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