KE demonstrably strong across the UK but pressure builds on research commercialisation.

Jo Johnson addressed today’s HEFCE annual conference with a focus on UK knowledge exchange activities and annual HE-BCI data for 2015-16. HEFCE analysis of the data provides a detailed look at how the university sector is performing across a wide range of KE activities.

Overall income from knowledge exchange in England grew by 3%, with income across the UK reaching a record £4.2bn in total. PraxisAURIL particularly welcomes the increase in engagement with small and medium-sized enterprises, with university income from contract research increasing by 13% and from consultancy by 14%. This reflects the significant effort that universities have put into working with SMEs to increase collaboration with that business sector. 

The Industrial Strategy Green Paper puts high expectations on the university sector to deliver innovations for growth, particularly through commercialisation of research. Figures for income from IP, which includes licensing, reflect the dynamism of an important but small part of a much wider range of knowledge exchange vehicles used by the research base to generate both income and impact. For example, the report also shows how university knowledge exchange activity benefits graduates and society. Universities and colleges helped to launch over 4,000 graduate start-up companies, and in total, these are estimated to have created over 22,000 jobs.

Johnson’s speech increases the pressure for universities across the piece to increase their commercialisation income, in spite of calls in the Dowling Review (2015) for universities to focus on long-term collaborations rather than short-term revenue. Formal spin-offs based on IP generated by a university increased by 18 per cent to 168 new companies. In total, university spin-off companies now employ over 18,000 people and attracted external investment estimated at over £1.1 billion in 2015-16. UK performance was compared unfavourably with the US, but international comparisons by HEFCE have demonstrated that year-on-year the UK performs well per research pound in terms of patents and spin-out creation – particularly when the very rare ‘super deals’ (such as Google) that skew the data are stripped out. This year’s figures show the UK continuing to outperform the US on percentage industrial contribution to research at 7.69%.

For the first time, HEFCE analysis presents data at the UK regional, sub-regional, county, LEP region and individual institutional level as maps, reflecting the emphasis on ‘place’ in the Government’s industrial strategy green paper. This analysis will support efforts to build capacity and target support where universities aspire to do more. At the same time we must not ignore the role of businesses and investors in growing KE activity and income; analysis has shown that investment and the absorptive capacity of industry is very low in many UK regions and universities there can struggle to attract commercial partners. We have welcomed the ‘Connecting Capabilities Fund’ as a way to tackle this. It will be vital to engage with potential customers in development of a KE Framework in order to ensure that proposals will result in greater interest and investment by external partners.    

PraxisAuril represents Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation (KEC) Professionals and their role in helping to stimulate innovation, productivity and growth; locally, nationally and internationally. Our members are drawn from across the UK and provide a vital link between universities and businesses of all kinds. The network’s expertise has played a key part of the HEFCE KE Framework project to date and we will ensure that that engagement continues under proposals announced today.  

The 2015-16 HEBCI data analysis can be accessed here. Details of Jo Johnson’s speech to HEFCE can be accessed via the BEIS website, with full details of Connecting Capability awards and 3rd Wave Science & Innovation Audits.