1 – What is it?
It is the commercial transformation of research. In other words, the idea of transforming a scientific discovery into a marketable product.
This phenomenon has always existed, but today it is becoming more and more common and widespread. Academic institutions are changing their behavior, financially encouraged by governments who must address economic and social priorities, and prospected by companies who are forced to accelerate their innovation processes in order to stay competitive.
Certain institutions see this as an excellent way of developing and spreading knowledge:
“We exist on taxpayer money. We have an obligation to try to get our research out into society”
Regis Kelly, Director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3)
2 – How does it come about?
We see new rules, procedures and also new specialized structures being created within universities: e.g. «Technology Transfer Offices » (TTOs), with the objective being to transfer knowledge into the industrial domain. (e.g. ISIS Innovation ; Texas Tech University Office of Research Commercialization…)
Today, we talk about “Academic entrepreneurship”:
“Faculty now want to find out about industry. They want to know how to patent, how to start up companies, how to connect more with companies.”
Montserrat Capdevila, Director of Sales, Marketing and International Relations at the John Hopkins Office of Technology Transfer
- – It is no longer rare to see universities creating and developing companies that originated from their own research laboratories. The start-ups (or spin-off companies) created within academic institutions are progressively integrating themselves into the economic landscape – ($8.5 billlion in value added “Global univ-Venturing” in 2014).
- – Licenses and patents are also other ways of valorizing research and creating a source of revenues.
Even if this new trend appears to be very attractive in terms of revenue (e.g. Isis Innovation generated an income of £24.6 million in 2015 and reimbursed £13.6 million to its creator Oxford University*. The revenue made from out-licensing is received later on, after the initial investments and only represents a small part of the R&D budget. For example, Harvard University of Cambridge generated $16.1 million in revenue in 2015 thanks to licenses, with a global budget of $4.5 billion, $876 million of which was designated to R&D expenses.
3 – Academic commitments that go above and beyond the commercial level: a long term vision
“The university is very clear it wants to create impact.They’re not there to make any quick money”
Linda Naylor, Managing Director of Isis innovation (University of Oxford)
Associating the notion of “research” with “commercialization”, often characterized by the image “Fast and Successful”, raises some important questions in the scientific domain. It is true that the pressure of having to commercialize could, over the long term, damage the integrity and the quality of academic research; e.g. launching products prematurely, loss of faith in academic research, reduced productivity for the researchers the most involved in commercial activities, increase in the degree of confidentiality with regards to expertise…
Considering research with commercial objectives is an interesting vision for creating value, but it can only be a short term vision in relation to research. The academic commitments are too broad and require time. “Research pursues a variety of goals, like understanding the universe…”