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Impact, not income: Dr David Secher comments about the future of tech transfer

  • 23 October 2018

New guidance issued by the Association of Medical Research Charities in September threatens to take us back to the days when inventors and entrepreneurs were discouraged from developing university research by the existence of ill-thought out policies. Gonville & Caius Life Fellow and knowledge exchange expert Dr David Secher says ‘seeking a greater share of imagined profits from tech transfer would undermine the process’. His opinion piece is published in Times Higher Education.

If your research was funded by the UK research councils in the 1970s, you had very little incentive to commercialise it.

In those days, the government claimed ownership of all intellectual property arising from the projects that it funded via the research councils, and kept the money from any inventions that resulted. There was the possibility of a small ex gratia payment, but that process was noncontractual and shrouded in secrecy. Unsurprisingly, few inventions were declared.

The Thatcher government ended the corporation’s monopoly and handed IP to the universities to manage instead. Universities were required (with catalytic funding) to facilitate the commercialisation of research and to support entrepreneurship, and all now reward inventors and support entrepreneurs. This has culminated in UK universities developing a technology transfer system that is the envy of the world – even if that is not always appreciated at home.

Technology transfer is unlikely to make universities a lot of money, but in response to the new guidance, Dr Secher reiterates the 21st-century mantra ‘impact, not income’.

In addition to advising charities to insist that universities seek their consent to any commercialisation plans for inventions arising out of charity-funded research, charities are advised to insist that universities return to them 50 per cent of any revenue generated.

The new guidance ‘threatens to take us back to the bad old days’ says Dr Secher. ‘The public give money to medical charities because they want to see benefits for patients. But the guidance would remove the incentive to commercialise. For instance, it would undermine the University of Cambridge statute stipulating that 90 per cent of the first £100,000 of revenue must go to the inventor(s). It would also add to the already frustratingly long time that it takes to develop an invention into a product. The number of inventions resulting from charity-funded research would fall, IP would fail to be protected and patients and UK plc would lose out.’ Dr Secher writes.  

Fortunately, there are signs that this nightmare scenario may not be realised. Some of the largest medical charities have indicated that they will ignore the guidelines, preferring to retain their existing arrangements with universities. Furthermore, the Wellcome Trust has recently abandoned its requirement for consent to commercialisation plans (although it still requires a 25 per cent share of proceeds).

Read the full article on Times Higher Education (subscription).

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