The inaugural ‘TenU hosts Economic Recovery’ event in five points

As we start preparing for the next iteration of the series, ‘TenU Hosts Ecosystems’, we reflect on the inaugural event ‘TenU Hosts Economic Recovery’ held on 18th September (catch up on ). The series offers opportunities for US and UK policymakers, thought leaders and leading practitioners in research commercialisation to hold conversations on topical issues.

The invitation-only event explored the over-arching frameworks being created in the US and UK to harness university research and science for economic recovery and future prosperity. The discussion was structured around recently launched innovation bills in the US, including the Endless Frontier Act, alongside the UK's R&D Roadmap.

The event was chaired by Tony Raven (CEO, Cambridge Enterprise) and speakers included Walter Copan (US Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and Director of NIST), David Sweeney (Executive Chair, Research England), George Baxter (CEO, Edinburgh Innovations), David Goldston (Director, MIT Washington Office), Orin Herskowitz (Executive Director, Columbia Technology Ventures) and Lesley Millar-Nicholson (Director, MIT Technology Licensing Office).

The event offered a great opportunity for policy-makers and influencers to hear about the important work that is done in technology transfer and the many ways in which it supports innovators in bringing their inventions to market. There was a strong emphasis on collaboration, with speakers highlighting that to have the strongest impact on society, all parts of the ecosystem need to be nurtured and developed through adequate funding and flexible policies that enable and support collaboration between academic researchers, businesses, investors, funders and policymakers. This message was communicated via five key discussion-points:

1.      COVID-19 has exposed the key role that Technology Transfer Offices play in disseminating innovative research

It is thanks to academic and industry researchers and their teams that findings could be quickly repurposed to address the current pandemic. However, it is also due to the routine work of Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) that these findings have been brought to the world by supporting partnerships, licences and the creation of companies that can bring these findings to market and ensure appropriate dissemination and social impact.

TenU TTOs have supported partnerships and licencing leading to the design, trials and/or production of:

o   vaccines,

o   antiviral medications,

o   an exposure notification technology,

o   diagnostic and rapid testing devices,

o   breathing devices including CPAPs and ventilators, and

o   other key findings supporting the fight against the pandemic.

It is this enormous potential within universities and TTOs that now needs to be harnessed in efforts to make a prompt economic recovery.

2.      Collaboration is key to technology transfer activities: businesses, investors, funders, policymakers

Several speakers, including David Sweeney (Research England), Lesley Millar-Nicholson (MIT) and Karin Immergluck (Stanford), highlighted that universities do not, and cannot, bring their findings to market on their own. Universities and their TTOs depend on flexible policies, adequate funding, early stage and follow-on capital investments and interest from industry partners to take up emerging know-how, technologies and products, develop them further and make them available in their markets. In order to fully reap the societal benefits of academic research, collaboration between universities, businesses, investors, funders and policymakers is essential.

3.      Curiosity-driven research is key to innovation: we don't know what the future holds

The panellists agreed that curiosity-driven research is key to successful technology transfer. Curiosity-driven research and use-driven research are both fundamental parts of the overall system leading to successful innovation. Tony Raven (Cambridge) highlighted that most licences at Cambridge are from curiosity-driven research, not collaborative or sponsored research. George Baxter (Edinburgh) pointed out that universities that topped the leagues in TT also topped the leagues in research.

4.      Universities' seek to maximise societal impact first, financial rewards come second

The overwhelming consensus is that universities do not undertake TT for their own financial benefit. In fact, most institutions do not expect to break even and are generous in licensing out discoveries. The driving objective for TT is to deliver impacts for society as a whole; the motto is ‘impact not income’.

While some universities do reap significant financial rewards, these can be traced back to a very small number of disclosures that have become phenomenally successful after many years of work. So, for instance, over 90% of Columbia's cumulative licensing income is from fewer than 10 disclosures, having invested in around 6000. In addition, the financial rewards accrue many years later. At Cambridge, 84% of the license income is from patents over 10 years old.

5.      University equity stakes depend on the strength of the ecosystem, amongst many other factors

The equity stakes taken by universities vary greatly, typically between 5-50%, on both sides of the Atlantic. The strength of the local ecosystem is a significant factor. Stanford, for example, typically takes a 5% stake because the Silicon Valley ecosystem does most of the work of building and financing their spin-outs. Those university TTOs in less mature ecosystems need to do more of the groundwork, including supporting inventors in forming spin-outs and so their equity stakes are commensurate with that effort. It was also noted that typically the low starting equity had non-dilute terms making it more equivalent to the higher equity stakes which were dilutable from the outset.

In addition to the strength of the ecosystem and dilution levels, there are other key factors that structure licensing deals, such as other parts of the package (e.g. fees, royalties, upfront fees etc), which, in turn, depend on the sector (e.g. software vs pharma), the relative role and stage of development of the technology in the final product or service, and the relative experience and preferences of individual investors. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all in licensing inventions and this is the case both in the US and the UK. 

" of the greatest ongoing lessons of TenU’s collaboration has been to learn that all the member TTOs face the same challenges in ensuring that they make the greatest societal impact."

These are points that many in the TT community are familiar with and it is reassuring to know that leading TTOs across the Atlantic are in agreement. Indeed, one of the greatest ongoing lessons of TenU’s collaboration has been to learn that all the member TTOs face the same challenges in ensuring that they make the greatest societal impact.

‘TenU Hosts Ecosystems’, the next event in the series, will compare different approaches to the ecosystem growth of New York City and London and discuss these in the context of US and UK efforts to develop ecosystems in the regions. The event will be held at the end of January 2021, so stay tuned for updates.


TenU is a transatlantic collaboration of the technology transfer offices of Cambridge (UK), Columbia (USA), Edinburgh (UK), Imperial College London (UK), Leuven (Belgium), Manchester (UK), MIT (USA), Oxford (UK), Stanford (USA), and UCL (UK), formed to capture experiences and insights of leading technology transfer offices and share these with UK and US HE communities and governments in order to increase the societal impact of research.

For more information, contact Ananay Aguilar at