"Knowledge transfer is a people business"

A few weeks ago PraxisUnico's Policy Officer, Tamsin Mann, spoke at a KnowledgeLondon Forum (KLF) event about the macro environment for Technology and Knowledge Transfer, the issues as we perceive them and possible solutions or routes to address them.

Tamsin was providing context for local activities since the main purpose of KnowledgeLondon is to allow practitioners of technology transfer and knowledge exchange to talk about their day-to-day experiences of working with companies and academics: attracting the former and incentivising the latter to bring about fruitful engagements.

Interestingly, the conversations centred much more around academic engagement with technology transfer than around commercial engagement – perhaps reflecting recent pressures around impact activity created by the REF.

As ever, it was interesting and useful to hear about the real challenges that practitioners are facing and reflect on how they match the big issues that PraxisUnico is tackling on members’ behalf. One speaker likened her role to that of a chemical catalyst, increasing the likelihood of a reaction. She used her scientific background as a parallel to analyse academic engagement and how it might be increased across a range of commercialisation activities.

Finding that only a small subset of the commercially engaged academic community were doing more than one type of activity (out of a possible three: commercialisation, consultancy, industry collaboration) she is now thinking about how to increase activity overall by encouraging multiple engagement types. Another spoke eloquently about how the university's technology transfer function had streamlined their IP portfolio to better focus resources, and had developed a document which spelt out what was expected from any academic when they undertook to work with them.

The latter was a brave but necessary step: you cannot market IP without the engagement of the inventor; this function had recognised that and wanted to ensure that their internal client was fully cognisant of their ongoing role in the commercialisation of their IP over time. A range of academic case studies helped to clarify how technology transfer and knowledge exchange practitioners can enhance the experience of the commercialisation process: they can explain, co-ordinate, negotiate using expert knowledge but importantly they must understand the academic motivation for contacting the TTO in the first place.

It may not always be about money - but it is highly likely to be about seeing years of academic research being applied in a way that makes a difference. That may mean creating a social enterprise rather than a more traditional ‘start-up’ with revenue streams and returns for investors, thereby presenting another new skill set for technology transfer and knowledge exchange practitioners to master.

It was this skills aspect that particularly resonated at the end of the sessions; that TT practitioners must be technically knowledgeable (many have PhDs and industry experience), develop expertise in treatment of IP (broadly defined), and have soft skills around customer service and relationship management.

With many examples of best practice shared on the day, particularly by Dr Anna Bonne of Imperial College, and Syeda Rahimunnessa from London South Bank University, it was a valuable and positive exchange of experience and views.

The next KnowledgeLondon Forum event is on May 27: "'Engaging Academics" with your Enterprise and Knowledge Transfer Activities".