A great idea, a university and a new industry

22nd February 2017

One of the most significant inventions of the early modern period was the printing press and Europe’s scholars were fundamental to the success of the new business of books. The goldsmith and engraver, Johannes Guttenberg invented printing with moveable type in Mainz in the mid-fifteenth century. His first book was printed in 1450.

The technology spread across Europe, but by 1470 had yet to make it to Paris. The rector of the University of Paris, Jean de La Pierre, worked with his colleague Guillaume Fichet to bring the technology to Paris. The developing industry retained close ties and new booksellers and printers set up shop along the Rue Saint Jacques, a wide thoroughfare beside the university. Parisian printers of the early sixteenth century were amongst the most technically and intellectually innovative, but their success owed a great deal to the scholars of the university and the protections and privileges that offered.

Across Europe, publishers, printers and booksellers who chose to set up in centres of trade and industry where there was also a university prospered. Printers with royal or government support in the shape of privilege (an early form of copyright) and tax emptions enjoyed enduring success.

Jump forward in time and place some 600 years and 5,570 miles to southern California and we can watch a similar story play out: a great idea, a university and a new industry. In the mid-twentieth century there was once again a confluence of invention, an academic leader embracing it and the emergence of a new industry.

Technical innovation and the silicon chip was the spark and Frederick Terman, dean of engineering and provost at Stanford University, fanned the flames. He encouraged his colleagues and graduating students to set up their own companies. Amongst them were William Redington Hewlett and David Packard. Silicon Valley expanded out from the university campus, becoming the Rue Saint Jacques of the twentieth century.

Silicon Valley is of course exceptional, a consequence of specific circumstances, but the UK can hold its own in the knowledge transfer arena. UK universities developed the test tube baby, genetic fingerprinting, cloning, fibre optics, the usable LED, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, graphene, keyhole surgery, plate tectonics, the portable defibrillator and the theory of Higgs Boson (the particle was later discovered at CERN).

Even those universities undertaking the most fundamental research have extensive experience of working with industry and spinning out companies. In Scotland, collaborative research involving public funding in 2014/2015 totalled £170.7 million. In the same period there were 1,317 active spin outs (with and without some university ownership), 10,956 active graduate start-ups and 293 social enterprises.

The full report can be found on the HESA website.

New and established support for SMEs working with universities in Scotland is helping to drive these engagements and to make initiating contact easier. Yet some businesses still find it difficult to navigate universities where structure, terminology and even job titles can be quite different.

Universities are, broadly, divided into academic staff and support staff. Although many knowledge exchange professionals have academic backgrounds (and academic titles) they are support staff.

Researchers at universities are organised into Faculties, Schools, Departments, Centres & Institutes and groups. At the University of St Andrews there are four faculties comprising eighteen academic schools. Within the schools, academics are aligned to research groups. Academics can also be part of wider research clusters including researchers from different schools (called centres or institutes). In the sciences, groups are named after the research topic or most senior academic. Academic job titles include: postdoctoral researcher (postdoc, has completed a PhD and is beginning an academic career), research assistant, teaching fellow, research fellow, lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor. These are partly hierarchical and partly reflect the nature of their role.

University-specific acronyms include:

  • Heads of School (HOS) have overall responsibility for their school.
  • Directors of Research (DOR) are responsible for the research within their school.
  • KE offices advise them of commercial opportunities and they distribute them to the academics in their school. Sometimes KE offices also contact academics directly if we know there’s a good fit. Principal Investigator (PI). This usually refers to the named lead academic on a grant proposal but is often used to describe an academic who, generally, leads projects. REF is the Research Excellence Framework, a system for assessing the quality of research at UK universities.
  • KE / KT refers to knowledge exchange or transfer. This can include any activity that increases the wider use and positive impact of university research. Sometimes also called technology transfer.
  • Commercialisation is a shorthand term used to describes the process of ideas & technology development for commercial exploitation – for universities this tends to be through licensing activities or the formation of new companies (spin-outs and start-ups).

Knowledge Transfer Offices: an open door

The knowledge transfer offices are both your way in and a continued point of reference. Your first contact is likely to be with a business development manager or executive (sometimes called business innovation manager, industrial liaison officer or technology transfer manager). Unlike in industry this is not a salesperson: they are knowledge exchange professionals working between industry and academia. They often have an academic background and a passion for seeing the impact of academic research outside of academia. They are well connected within their university, with collaborative funding organisations and with industry.

What KE professionals can do for you:

  • listen to your requirements and see if their institution has the expertise to help, and capability to do so in a timely manner;
  • connect and introduce you to an appropriate academic;
  • organise and run the first meeting between you;
  • advise on collaborative funding schemes that fit your project and budget;
  • give you some basic information on intellectual property, confidentiality agreements and contracts (there are templates agreed by all the Scottish Universities so you don’t necessarily need a legal team to work with a university);
  • help draft funding applications; • ensure that the university’s contracts and finance teams are briefed on the project and agreed terms;
  • act as a continued central point of contact if any issues arise once the project is underway (e.g. requesting extensions or changes from funders if necessary);
  • help with the final report if the project is funded;
  • advise on potential further collaborative funding, and
  • notify you of other non-collaborative (industry only) funding calls

Note from editor:  With established connections in each of Scotland’s 23 universities and research institutions, Interface is able to identify the appropriate expertise, the best technologies and the most relevant facilities and equipment to solve any number of business challenges.  So let Interface navigate the right university for your needs, saving you time and money to concentrate on what you do best – developing your business!