The transfer window: Interview with Professor Andrew Hopper, IET
Throw a figurative stone in any gathering of senior engineers and you are bound to hit someone with a strongly-held opinion on how best to increase the successful transfer of technological innovation from universities to industry.
However, when the president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology talks on the subject, one pays attention. And when that person has the track record that Professor Andrew Hopper does, one is bound to take it more seriously than most.
Professor Hopper is professor of computer technology and heads up the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. With a long history of turning innovative research and technology into commercial success he has co-founded 13 start-ups, three of which have floated on stock markets. He is also Chairman of RealVNC and Ubisense, both born of research by Cambridge University graduates and both winners of two Queen's Awards for Innovation and International Trade. So, as he puts himself: "[Mine] is not a fatuous perspective on this subject."
The question of increasing the number of successful university spin-outs has exercised many minds, of course. These have included Government, academia, industry and any number of intermediary groups.
This push, of course, has led the universities themselves to make increasingly high-profile efforts to translate intellectual capital into its monetary equivalent. These efforts have usually taken the form of University-owned technology transfer offices such as Oxford's Isis Innovation or Cambridge Enterprise, whose brief is to undertake technology transfer and exploit the intellectual property developed by the university.
Prof. Hopper's assessment of this landscape, however, is less than positive. Indeed, he is very clear about the fact that, in his eyes, the model for successful technology transfer as it currently exists is structurally flawed.
"I think universities are in a very difficult position," he explains. "They are trying to sell IP for as much as possible, so they look within the university for what they perceive to be of value and try to get the best price for it. But the thing is that I haven't yet found a person on the planet who can definitely pick winners."
Instead of this way of doing things, Prof. Hopper endorses what he calls "a volume approach". He says: "The core point is that the market is in the wrong place… [The universities] are trying to sell everything for as much as possible and I think they would probably be much better off going for a volume strategy, by which I mean getting as many innovative ideas as possible out there and maybe make a bit less on each one. That way, you get as much out there as possible and let the market pick the winners. The market needs to be pushed somewhere else, because the universities themselves are not the people who should be trying to pick winners."
The consequences of such a shift, he believes, would be a 'win-win' for all concerned. "As a consequence of shifting the market to a later stage, everyone wins," he says. "The universities will make more money and at the other end, you've got much more activity, so the marketplace is busier, more competitive and there are more innovative ideas in circulation."
In addition to creating greater levels of innovation, Prof. Hopper believes that such a relationship is only reasonable given that the so much university research is already largely funded by the taxpayer. He says: "The taxpayer has already paid for the research once. Why should they have to pay again?" He also believes that, by making such IP available to industry, it would help to engender better and closer relationships between academia and the commercial world.
If such a relationship sounds rather one-way, however, he believes that it would not leave the universities empty-handed. Indeed, in his Inaugural address as President of the IET, Hopper suggested a model that gave the university a set percentage of the company in return. Alternatively, he suggested the possibility of the university retaining 1% of the company 'dilution protected' (meaning that notwithstanding further investment the university is entitled to keep its 1%). He said: "If this were to work I would be very happy to be a vice-chancellor – not that I am one – and have lots of companies in which I have a small stake, especially if it was dilution-protected."
For all that, however, Hopper feels that no system can guarantee innovation or success, saying: "The most important thing that comes out of universities walks out on its own two feet." For this reason, he also believes that any artificial attempt to create an environment that produces innovation is doomed to failure.
"The whole world is trying to industrialise innovation," he says. "But you can't industrialise innovation any more than you can industrialise a painting or any other piece of art. It can only come from individuals."
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1953 and a UK citizen since 1964, Professor Hopper received a BSc degree from the University of Wales Swansea and a PhD from the University of Cambridge.
He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, and in 2007 was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to the computer industry.
His current research interests include computer networking, pervasive and sensor-driven computing and using computers to ensure the sustainability of the planet.
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