As part of my role in BBSRC, I work at the interface between funding research and helping universities to realise their impact from these investments. In recent years, I have seen a resurgence of the use of metrics to measure the outputs of research. As more money is being committed to research and knowledge exchange, we are increasingly being asked what difference this is making to the economy and society. This is a good thing, as everyone should be accountable for what they do. However, how should we measure this, and how do we ensure our measures are appropriate for all situations and sectors?
Being able to accurately measure your outputs is a good way to help you understand if what you are doing is having a positive impact and the effect you were expecting. For example, this is why Research England has been tasked by the Government to develop a Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). I have been working in collaboration with Hamish McAlpine in Research England for the last year to help inform the debate and identify suitable metrics. The recently released reports and consultation on the KEF give some insight into the complexity and challenges of doing this well for the very diverse HE sector in England.
Patent-ways to Impact?
I have long argued that IP protection via patenting is only suitable in certain sectors and in response to specific business models. However, data to substantiate such arguments are often difficult to come by. Therefore, over the last 6 months, I have also worked in collaboration with the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to link our BBSRC dataset on spinout companies that have arisen from our investments in research to the IPO data on published patents. You can read this article here.
In recent years, BBSRC and other funders of research have often been asked to highlight how many patents have been filed as a result of investments in research. This is often used as a proxy to understand the ‘innovation potential’ of an area of science. However, for a Research Council like BBSRC that invests in areas as diverse as plant science, microbes, biotechnology, agriculture and human behaviour, patent filing is not always the primary way to realise impact. In some case it is essential, but that the truth is that in many cases, patenting is mainly a business activity and that university patenting is only a precursor to that activity.
So what does the data say?
We looked at the 387 spin-out companies created from BBSRC investments in research and the IPO identified 130 companies which had at least one patent published. Not surprisingly, most spinout companies (210 of them in fact) operate in the pharmaceutical and medical biotechnology sector. And these spinout companies were also the one with the most patents (82 companies with 1776 patents published between them). This finding supports the sector and business model argument, i.e. that patenting is most used in this sector since it is integral to the business model of early-stage companies with a long lead time to market and in need of investments. However, while on average spinout companies in the pharmaceutical and medical biotechnology sector have an average of 22 patents published, the distribution is highly skewed: of the 130 spinout companies studied, 71 have only a small portfolio of patents (5 or fewer) but 23 spinout companies have a portfolio of more than 20 published patents and 11 spinout companies have at least 50 patents published. This supports the argument that patenting is a business decision, and while the initial filing of a patent might have been done by a university, it is businesses that then build on this to protect their commercial interest by using the patenting system. For the 130 spinout companies identified by the IPO, only 50 companies had their initial patent filed by the university prior to the incorporation of a company.
So, what does all this tell us?
Well, firstly, it confirms that patenting is important for some businesses, but that it is also more specific to certain sectors such as pharmaceutical and medical technologies. It also confirms that it is mainly a company activity and that patenting by universities is a precursor to the development of a technology.
Secondly, it tells us that in the biosciences you can measure the number of patents published if you wish, but by doing so you will be measuring the ‘innovation potential’ of the pharmaceutical and medical biotechnology sector. This is valuable, but grossly under-represents all the other outputs of research in the other sectors bioscience underpins.