Technology Transfer marketing – is it a waste of time?

Like many other research-intensive universities, Oxford yields hundreds of new inventions every year. This provides the substrate for one of the key aspects of our activity at OUI – the management and commercialisation of IP arising from research. While we don’t take forward every new idea that crosses our threshold – and there are various reasons why we might decide that a project is not supportable – we proceed each year to file in excess of 100 new patent applications, and support plenty of non-patentable IP such as copyright in software source code and health outcomes questionnaires.


Guest blog by Adam Stoten PhD RTTP, Chief Operating Officer, Oxford University Innovation Ltd
Originally posted on LinkedIn


The result is a large number of new commercialisation projects each year, spanning everything from quantum computing to vaccines to autonomous vehicles to energy storage to speech recognition and so on. And plenty of AI of course. Some of these projects might have “spinout” written all over them from the outset, where they clearly have the potential to sustain a new venture, and indeed we create 20+ each year. Others might only ever be destined for repeat non-exclusive licensing to existing companies, for example the software research tools we licence via our online Software Store. Or some may have a very obvious home in a company with which the academic inventor already has a connection or collaboration.

There will also, every year, be a significant number of projects that don’t fit neatly in any of the above categories. On the face of it they are deserving of support; they appear to provide an economically and technically tractable solution to a meaningful problem; they have IP that we can protect or manage in a manner that should be conducive to finding a partner; and our preliminary market research has identified some target companies operating in the relevant business area.

Cue action from colleagues to generate non-confidential marketing profiles, identify and contact target companies and find one to which we can licence the IP and which will develop and market a product based on the Oxford invention. And this is where things get sticky. Many – if not most – of our projects are quite specialised and, although we endeavour to deploy proof of concept funding to advance them to a more mature Technology Readiness Level, many are still in need of significant development before a product or service can be sold. This immediately turns off a slew of companies which are interested only in finished products or those in late stage development.

Then we have the challenge of finding amongst the global panoply of potential licensees those for which:

  • the strategic fit is right
  • the technical fit is right
  • the risk profile is acceptable
  • the timing is right
  • sufficient financial resources are available to invest
  • the right person can be found to champion the deal

Finally, add in the sheer breadth of sectors that we cover and, even with a relatively large team, finding the needle in the haystack – aligning TTO “push” with company “pull” - can be a Herculean task.


What do our results tell us about the effectiveness of this marketing approach? OUI alum Richard Holliday recently posted an excellent LinkedIn article ( citing an analysis he led here a few years ago that looked at a cohort of 100 licence deals and identified the source of the partner for each. His results showed that about 25% of deals came from pre-existing academic contacts. However, a more recent analysis by my colleague Serena de Nahlik shows that this source of partners has grown year on year since the original study to nearly 50% in the period 2017-19. The same study indicates an increasing proportion of licensing deals to our spinout portfolio and a dwindling proportion of deals from our efforts to scour the market for potential partners.

How about marketing platforms? There are many such offerings, with the likes of InPart and TechConnect having garnered significant market share in recent times. While we endeavour to keep an open mind, it is fair to say that we have enjoyed very little success in terms of actual transactions being traced back to contacts made via such platforms, although there may be indirect benefits both from exposure of our IP and also in identifying organisations with an interest in the research which gave rise to the licensing opportunity. Ultimately there remains a reticence amongst the kind of large corporates that browse such platforms to take on the early stage opportunities we typically offer, no matter how loudly they trumpet their open innovation credentials.


So what is the solution to this challenge of getting our IP into the hands of partners who can take it to market and ultimately achieve impact? Magic bullets are unlikely to exist but one experiment that we piloted earlier this summer in Oxford might represent a glimmer of hope for a fundamentally different approach.

In collaboration with The Foundry (Oxford’s student entrepreneurship centre) and Oxford Sciences Innovation plc (a £600M venture fund focused on Oxford University), OUI launched StEP – our Student Entrepreneurship Programme. This programme brought together interested Oxford University students who self-assembled into multi-disciplinary teams around projects chosen from a pool of 30 from OUI’s portfolio. None of these projects were already being pursued as spinouts and many were in the "hard to shift" category. The teams then worked intensively during a 4 week period, supported by a stipend, to work up new venture proposals, supported by various mentors and with the chance of winning £25K at the end of it, courtesy of OSI. For any new venture arising, the students receive 90% of the founding equity, with the remaining 10% shared between the University and the academic originator of the IP (whose consent was required to make available the project in the first place).

We imagined the primary benefit of the programme would be giving the students entrepreneurial experience. However, the quality of new venture proposals from minds unencumbered by dogma or received wisdom was fantastic, and far surpassed our expectations. Not only is the winning project making great progress but others have gained new momentum and focus. The scheme was so successful that we are repeating it twice this academic year – see .

It also shows the power of simply building a pool of local entrepreneurial demand in which the entrepreneurs are, within reason, agnostic as to the nature of a given project, provided that they can see a genuine commercial opportunity. Arguably this is precisely the approach that has led to the pre-eminent innovation ecosystems built around MIT and Stanford, where the cadre of entrepreneurs and investors provides the main “pull” for technologies, and the TTOs have historically provided little support beyond the licensing transactions.


One of Oxford’s great strengths is its intellectual capital and, while it may not quite have the number of entrepreneurs that Boston offers, we have an increasingly entrepreneurial student and research community, one of the world’s top business schools generating MBAs and Exec MBAs, and huge growth in the number of companies around the city. We also have a diverse alumni network, many of whom are accomplished entrepreneurs, and to this end there is a strong imperative for us to foster stronger links with Oxford’s colleges. The colleges are rightly sensitive about their own alumni relationship management but are also starting to embrace entrepreneurial support as a means of enhancing both alumni engagement and student experience.

The StEP model may not be the panacea for all TTO marketing woes but it represents a concept that has shown initial promise and which could have the potential to fundamentally alter how we connect IP to commercialisation partners. For instance, we are looking at how we could make available a wider range of projects and connect them to established and more experienced entrepreneurial networks. The StEP model could also lend itself to collaborative approaches between universities, especially smaller institutions that would otherwise struggle to achieve critical mass. With the first iteration of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) - intended to increase efficiency and effectiveness in all aspects of knowledge exchange - looming, it is perhaps a timely innovation.

We would love to hear from other institutions that have had experience with similar models, or indeed completely different approaches that have yielded success…  


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Serena de Nahlik, Brendan Ludden and Simon Gray of OUI for their contributions.


Guest blog by Adam Stoten PhD RTTP, Chief Operating Officer, Oxford University Innovation Ltd
Originally posted on LinkedIn