Impact Blog

Unlocking the University Ideas Vault

June 2020
Cameron Turner
Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer, UQ Business School, Progel Founder and CEO, PERKii inventor and Founder

Universities are places where some of our brightest minds have the opportunity to transfer the newest knowledge to the most enquiring youth of the day. In fact, Universities are now measured and rewarded by governments, industry and students on their ability to not only create and teach this knowledge, but also translate it for social and economic benefit. Entrepreneur and Lecturer Cameron Turner suggests a way we might speed this process up.

The problem with research translation – can we make it faster and better?

Every research-intensive university faces a similar challenge in translating the volume of ideas and expertise within their academic faculty and research higher degree cohort into the community. In most of the top 100 universities, there are up to 10000 researchers and a similar amount of research higher degree students. Most of these universities have a research budged in excess of $100 million with many exceeding $500 million, profoundly more than the majority of the world’s largest companies. Here, the brightest collection of human capital expends significant amounts of fiscal capital creating new solutions (intellectual capital) to solve real and often wicked problems. These solutions may represent enormous public value. But report after report indicate the rate of translation of university ideas, while improving, is very inefficient. Perkmann (2013) found that in the US, 5% of academics patent and 3% are involved in entrepreneurship, whereas less than 20% are involved in industry collaboration of consulting. In the UK 44% of physical and engineering academics collaborated with industry with 22% patenting and 12% involved in entrepreneurship. UK and German life scientists do better with 40% patenting, however only 9% are involved in entrepreneurship. Universities need to continue to find ways to increase their contribution to solving the many social, economic and environmental challenges the global community faces by unlocking their ideas vault.

The traditional methods of translating this new knowledge other than through teaching and research publications is via collaborative research and licenses to existing companies or via venture backed start-ups, which are much less common. Most of the research-intensive universities prioritise industry engagement with translation being done through collaboration with companies. Some funding schemes are enabling graduate researchers to directly work with industry including placements within companies as part of their PhD programs (e.g. ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centres). However, research shows this is still a minority of faculty, is a relatively small part of the researchers’ activities and is entirely dependent on the individual academic’s ability to engage with and deliver results for the industry partner. Most companies are only interested in collaborating on projects with a short term and direct benefit to their existing products and services. Whereas most university research is either too early to deliver short term benefits or too disruptive for existing corporate business models. This results in the more innovative discoveries getting stuck in the university intellectual vault.

The more traditional method of research translation is via a university technology transfer office (TTO). However most TTO’s primarily focus on licensing patents to existing companies or venture backed start-ups. Given so few academics patent, these organisations are small and service a fraction of the university community. In the US, most university TTO’s have less than 25 staff and spend on average 0.6% of their research budgets on transferring the technology resulting from their research programs. Over half the technology transfer programs bring in less money than the costs of operating the program and only 16% are self-sustaining (Abrams, et al. 2009). Therefore, it is utterly impossible for the university administration to assist even a small proportion of the faculty to translate their ideas into public benefit. As a general rule most academics don’t want to be entrepreneurs so with profoundly more ideas and expertise than is currently being actively translated, there needs to be another way to scale up the public benefit of the enormous research capacity at global research-intensive universities.

Are the entrepreneurs we need, sitting in our Masters classrooms?

Ironically these same research-intensive universities have tens of thousands of high-quality Masters level (e.g. business and marketing) students actively seeking new knowledge and increasingly are wanting more than just a one-dimensional teaching and learning experience. They want and need entrepreneurial skills. From a pedagogical perspective, we know individuals learn better through experiences rather than by exposure to content. More than any other generation, today’s university students want to make a difference and do something they actually believe in. Many universities are responding to this by incorporating entrepreneurial activities into the curricular and extra-curricular experiences at university.  In its broadest definition entrepreneurial thinking is about problem solving in a complex environment that creates value for our society, regardless of it being social, cultural economic or environmental. These skills are the most important non-cognitive skills we can teach throughout the entire education system – so why aren’t we teaching them with our own vault of ideas? Some Universities are encouraging the next generation of research graduates to do this through additional training during their PhDs, but many just want to focus on their research, they didn’t choose to do a PhD to become an entrepreneur, and there is another way.

Let’s get our student entrepreneurs and our researchers collaborating to unlock research ideas for translation

The best modern universities should not only teach their students the latest knowledge and skills but allow them to engage with this knowledge and apply entrepreneurial skills to try and work out how this new knowledge can be applied to create value. The best universities already have entrepreneurship programs designed to help students create and grow start-ups. However almost all rely on the student coming up with their own idea, which is why the vast majority fail. In the broader start-up ecosystem 90+% of new ventures fail with the failure percentage increasing when the student founder has little or no real world experience. The data tells us the best chance of entrepreneurial success is for a 45-55 year old founder who has deep domain experience, has seen a problem and has an idea for a solution. We also know the reason the majority of start-ups and even new products from companies fail is the lack of customers wanting the product or service or market demand. This risk can be reduced through deeper customer discovery and engagement and development of a more innovative business model before the venture begins. Alexander Osterwilder says that a better business model will out compete a new product every time. The Lean Launchpad program has been developed to achieve just this.

Our initiative at UQ aims to establish collaborative partnerships between university researchers (academics, post docs and PhD’s) who have ideas with impact potential and partner them with our masters and MBA students. The students need to have an entrepreneurial mindset and be open to working on an idea they can help take to the world while learning about entrepreneurship and complex problem solving in an asymmetrical environment that interests them. This has the added bonus of exposing early career and graduate researchers to business ideas for their own professional development.

To achieve these partnerships, we need to have both researchers and PhD students with ideas that can’t be easily licensed by university TTO’s (which is most of the researcher’s ideas) and Masters students with an interest in engaging with the discipline of the researcher and an entrepreneurial mindset. The researcher ideas can quite easily be assembled through a couple of different methods, which is perhaps a post for another day.

However, if we can assemble teams of researchers and masters level students working on taking new ideas to market via start-ups we will achieve a number of outcomes regardless of the start-up’s success:

  1. The students will get a better learning experience and develop entrepreneurial skills
  2. The researchers will be able to discover new ways their research can have impact and will develop entrepreneurial skills
  3. The community will derive more public benefit from research intensive universities
  4. Universities will increase their profile in the community and their ability to attract the best students and industry collaborations will increase.

If the start-up is a success the university and the researcher can be rewarded either through a trailing royalty in revenue or equity in the company. The start-up benefits by having access to a technical resource they could otherwise not afford. They may also be able to utilise the Universities brand reputation and equity, which will help to bolster consumer and/or industry credibility, thus increasing the likelihood of success with customers and investors.

At the University of Queensland, we are trialling a pilot version of this program at both a curricular and extracurricular level. For more information see our Commercialisation in Practice (CiP) course and our extracurricular programs here:

  1. Abrams, I. (2009) – How are U.S. Technology Transfer Offices Tasked and Motivated— Is It All About the Money? Management Research Review 17(1)
  2. Daepp, M. (2015) The mortality of companies. R.Soc.Interface 12:20150120.
  3. Lackéus, M. (2015) 0 Entrepreneurship in Education – A background paper for the OECD.
  4. Moberg, K. (2012). The impact of entrepreneurship education and project-based education on students’ personal development and entrepreneurial intentions at the lower levels of the educational system: Too much of two good things? Available at SSRN 2147622.
  5. Perkmann, (2013) Academic engagement and commercialisation: A review of the literature on university–industry relations. Research Policy 42 (2013) 423– 442

Photo by Emiel Maters on Unsplash

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