Talking Tech Transfer with Ian Tracey
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
In early September, we were joined by Anchored In’s Ian Tracey to discuss the exciting changes happening in the UK Technology Transfer sector.
We put a few questions to Ian to get his expert view on what we’ve seen happen and what we might see coming over the horizon.
1. What have been the big changes in the last 10 years?
Change has happened on several levels. Early on, Technology Transfer was seen as just a means of augmenting lack of academic funding - and it was expected that Tech Transfer teams could quickly become self-financing. But IP protection is quite expensive and that was seen as the route to go down in all instances. The teams were building up portfolios that they could licence out later.
I think we’re now seeing a much more pragmatic approach, where Universities try to be more demand led by the market as to the problems they try and solve. I think the way that impact is now measured has helped - there is a framework in place that enables Universities to more easily identify the broader societal problems.
2. Are we seeing a more patient approach to capital returns too?
More established Technology Transfer teams have found a number of ways to bring more money into the Universities. Through better grant applications, better consultancy, to better job opportunities for the graduates and the growth of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. Universities are thinking about Technology Transfer not as a cost centre, but as a strategic force multiplier across a number of metrics that they are measured against.
And so look at the differences over time. You get some big research-centric universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial. They've gone from three or four people to tens, if not a few hundred people tackling each of these different areas. They have raised their own seed funds that gives them a level of independence in the early stages of the project.
3. How do you see careers in Technology Transfer evolving?
Well, there are formal qualifications and bodies. You have ASTP, Praxis Auril and others who give you a formal training programme to become chartered in Technology Transfer. For many decades we have had formal qualifications for other trades. Now you can formally train at Knowledge Transfer.
That is a “Good Thing” - it shows that Knowledge Transfer has become a career choice. It’s a discipline that needs to be built to manage the effectiveness of technology transfer. KT is an extremely promising area to be involved in, I see it growing in importance not just to Universities, but to the economy and society at large.
4. What’s your view on the infrastructure and frameworks that Government is putting in place? Is it encouraging the right behaviour?
Academia has historically been a government-funded or in other words, a heavily subsidised industry. And so when you change the rules around government money, the behaviour of the academic industry will change too.
I do believe in the trinity of REF, TEF and KEF. And we're still getting changes around the third pillar (KEF), but it’s interesting because it is arguably the most important because it’s has a lot of potential for growth, whereas Teaching and ‘pure’ Research are more established disciplines.
Like every formal metric system, it's going to have a few oddities that come out of the wash, but that’s the way formal metrics often function. And I'm confident those metrics will improve over time.
It’s easy to be unfair to a sector purely because of imperfect metrics - but this is such a young industry, with so much potential. Let’s take a look at the IT industry - which came out of defence and manufacturing, it took ~40 years to see big societal dividends pay off, but we’re now living in the digital age as a result.
The car of today has completely different mileage, safety systems etc. We are talking about self-driving because of IT. Well, you can make the same things about Knowledge Exchange. Carrying on with the car example, there's plenty of research, for example in behaviour analysis coming out in the social sciences that has big implications with regards to cars. That innovation is enabled because of an effective Knowledge Exchange programme.
5. With the REF, TEF and KEF framework, what would your suggestions be for those Universities that are now heavily investing in expanding the area of the triangle?
One of the reasons I like REF, TEF and KEF is that it's an area of a triangle problem. It has formalised the idea that you're better off trying to improve your weak area because you make much bigger improvements than trying to perfect what you are already very good at. Humans tend to enjoy working where they are strongest.
For example, you've got some really, really good teaching universities. Now many Universities today are teaching-focused universities, but there are ways they can make tremendous improvements to their impact, for example, collaborating on courses with local industry, creating the workers that they need in six to thirty-six months time or doing it as part of a modern apprenticeship.
On the spin-out side, I think the universities are looking to become more professional in the way that they manage their access to startup capital.I think breaking down the opacity of where the long tail of investor interests lie is a very important first step. Tools like Ship Shape are game-changing in that because first and foremost they're making the names visible. But more importantly, they're providing an insight into what smart money is thinking about problems, and that is another way of creating demand-pull dynamics in a space that is quickly adapting to just that. What this then helps with is the ability to identify the individuals that can move the needle for spin-outs developing long-tail technologies.
If you can layer onto that the ability to connect these spin-outs with the right advisors - because Technology Transfer teams don’t need to have deep relationships in every sector - and then you start to really move the needle for UK Universities that have spin-outs and Technologies that suffer from a lack of scalability in today’s setup. That then breeds the success that can see the organisations reach the scale of others that have been in this sector for decades already.
We want to extend a personal thank you to Ian for talking with us and Anchored In for letting us borrow his time. We continued talking about a whole host of changes, regulations and exciting prospects, but that will have to wait till next time so stayed tuned!
Daniel Sawko, CEO