Tamsin Mann, Director of Policy & Communication, reviews Tom Hockaday's new book on Technology Transfer which draws on his 30-year career in TT at UK universities and on the global TT community stage.
Roughly twenty years since the first HE innovation funding grants were awarded to kick-start ‘third stream’ activity in UK universities, the focus on research and innovation is tight with high expectations of what the research base can deliver by working with external partners. Within today’s broad definition of Knowledge Exchange (KE) there is an ongoing focus on IP commercialisation to license innovation and create new companies, from the ‘white heat’ of blue-sky, discovery research.
This is Technology Transfer (TT) – a small but significant part of KE activity conducted mainly at research intensive universities across the UK’s HE sector. Significant, because it can deliver great value to companies, returns for investors, and spill-over impact from jobs and economic growth to regions, but small because it is high cost and sometimes high risk and larger institutions tend to be more resilient to both challenges, as well as having a broader research base to draw on in the first place. The dynamics of commercialisation is something that governments have tried to understand in reviews running into double figures and is the subject of much consultancy and academic research. Although PraxisAuril members contribute to public reviews and are often interviewed for research projects, their day-to-day experience of ‘what works’ remains frustratingly low-profile. This book rectifies that by bringing practical experience into the spotlight.
"What shines through in Tom’s account is the pleasure he’s taken from the job"
Tom Hockaday has been here from the start, building his tech transfer career as the function has expanded and matured in the UK’s universities. He has seen cycles of innovation policy come and go. He has seen universities invest in TT functions and re-shape them according to leadership strategy or external policy focus. He has seen the formalisation of training to deliver the skills needed to engage academics, assess the potential of breakthrough ideas, and secure external investment from a risk-averse market. This book is the distillation of trial, error, luck, and good judgement developed over the years and the conclusions he has reached about what works, what is necessary for success, and how universities can help to make success more predictable. Appropriately enough, his learning can be distilled into a number of ‘Is’ (inventions, income, investment, impact, etc) and ‘Ps’ (patents, promotion, processes, paperwork, and - above all - people).
Many PraxisAuril members will recognise Tom’s journey, his experiences and the knowledge he’s gained. Probably the greatest virtue of the PraxisAuril network is this willingness to share experiences and pass knowledge on to others through training and public speaking. What shines through in Tom’s account is the pleasure he’s taken from the job; the value is the insight he shares and the thought he has put into constructing models and frameworks for others to follow. I particularly enjoyed the focus not only on the external market, but also on the importance of internal communications. This is something we talk less about but should pay more attention to. After all, without the academic entrepreneur there is no TT, without central university resources and administration to support the entrepreneur there is much less TT than there might be, so these audiences matter.
"The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has not come from a standing start...it is a positive outcome of years of investment, building-up resources and expertise"
This is not only a useful book, it’s a very readable one; Tom has an eye for the anecdote but any irreverence is balanced by the relevance of the story to the point being made. I hope there will be an addendum in a few years’ time, reflecting on how Tech Transfer – particularly at Tom’s alma maters Oxford, Bristol and UCL – stepped up a gear in response to the pandemic, demonstrating the value of the past two decades of public investment and hopefully giving universities more confidence in their TT offices; defending them at times of scrutiny and promoting their success as a key mission of the modern HEI (Tom’s letter to an imaginary Vice-Chancellor encapsulates these hopes and more). The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has not come from a standing start, either on the research or TT side, it is a positive outcome of years of investment, building-up resources and expertise.
The final chapter of the book is entitled ‘Whatever Next’ – a particularly well-timed question as it happens since many of us are asking the same as a result of the past few months. Will the pandemic response encourage senior university management to recognise and celebrate their TT (and other KE) function? Will there just be a pat on the back or will more resources and support flow to the ‘third mission’? How much of the pandemic response will be retained in more normal working practice, and what impact will that have on ways of working in other parts of the university administration? The KE Concordat, launched around the same time as this book’s publication, puts the onus on leadership and a ‘whole institution’ approach to knowledge exchange – what Tom refers to as the ‘University Innovation Landscape’. TT is already changing with social enterprises and student enterprise pushing TTOs into new territory. At the same time, expectations about a university’s external relationship with industry, employers, and civic institutions as well as the support it provides enterprising students and researchers have only got higher. The combination of this policy ‘push’ combined with the public profile afforded by the pandemic might be the impetus for a gear change in tech transfer practice but, just as importantly, for a step change in the way TT as part of the UK’s broad and world-leading KE activity is regarded inside and outside the academy. That feels like a particularly good way to celebrate a 20th anniversary.
Tom Hockaday will be discussing his book with David Secher, PraxisAuril Patron, on Tuesday 4th August. Register via our Digital Events page where a post-event recording will also be made available.
'University Technology Transfer: What it is and how to do it' is published by Johns Hopkins University press. PraxisAuril members can receive a special discount of 30% off the RRP when purchasing direct from Johns Hopkins University Press c/o John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Distribution Centre, 1 Oldlands Way, Bognor Regis, West Sussex PO22 9NQ, UK. Tel: (0)1243 843291. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Postage & packing extra. Offer ends 31st October 2020. Quote 'PRAXI' to receive your discount.