Future face of knowledge transfer
Achieving the EU’s Lisbon goals of becoming the world’s knowledge powerhouse means, among other things, being able to transfer know-how from its birthplace in Europe’s labs and universities to where it can be put to good use in industry. Knowledge transfer offices (KTO) have traditionally served this purpose well, but as delegates at a recent conference learned, universities are looking at faster, more pervasive ways to deliver their ‘knowledge’ product to market.
Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and in more recent times the internet Godfather Tim Berners-Lee are names synonymous with scientific greatness. European inventions put steam into the industrial revolution and drive some of the core systems in the 21st century’s own industrial revolution – the telecommunications boom. While displaying guts and determination in the laboratory, Europeans’ stomach for entrepreneurship and innovation – converting research to products and services – is not as strong as their counterparts in the USA and some other knowledge-creating regions of the world.
|Knowledge transfer need not be a heavy burden on European universities – experts say it should be seen as an “investment not a cost”.|
Why is this so? Delegates at the ProTon Europe 3rd Annual Conference in Berlin last month heard from a range of experts that Europe has reason to be optimistic, but also a little pessimistic about its innovation system’s performance as global competition for finance ‘hots up’. Entrepreneurs especially bemoan the funding gap – unflatteringly called “Death Valley” – they face in the early stages of growing a tech-based company in Europe. Venture capitalists who might fill this gap site the poor and sometimes negative returns on such investments as reason to steer clear of riskier start-ups.
Knowledge transfer specialists, working in universities, incubators and tech centres, speak of the difficulty in switching researchers’ mindsets from ‘investigator’ to ‘entrepreneur’ mode – learning how to develop the business end of the innovation and to handle the intellectual property (IP) aspects, in particular.
Metal to gold
According to ProTon Europe, knowledge transfer in Europe increasingly requires a means of integrating intellectual property management into the scientific and business skills mix. Delegates at the Berlin event learned of the importance of introducing senior management into start-ups at the right time to help them tune their business and investment plan in line with technological development plans.
In the past decade or so, knowledge transfer offices have sprung up across Europe to provide university spin-offs with a range of services, from basic financial and IP advice through to full-service incubation and mentoring to budding entrepreneurs. But the idea of a physical ‘office’ where a bright young chemist would pitch her method for converting base metal to gold is not, it appears, how Europe will become the world’s knowledge fortress.
John Latham who heads Coventry University Enterprise (CUE) told delegates that Coventry University (UK) has turned the KTO concept on its head. It set up a KTO because it was what universities were doing a decade ago. But times are a changing, he suggested.
“Now, it’s not somewhere people go,” he said, “but something more pervasive.” Knowledge transfer in Coventry is now a function of the way people think. Taking the MIT model in the USA, which uses industry liaison people to scout and develop ideas, as inspiration, CUE is proactive in seeking out new opportunities to develop the university’s know-how. And the approach has proven very successful. Although wholly owned by the university, CUE is an economic player in its own right, with around €15 million per annum turnover and a staff of 125 and growing.
Latham said knowledge transfers needs to be built into the core curriculum, with professors encouraged to act as external consultants and not bound by internal red tape. This boosts their real-world skills as well as the university’s credentials and reach in the community.
KTOs of the future, he opined, should be pervasive not cordoned off in a musty room – and they must be underpinned by an “ours not mine” attitude. They should have authority to act, be given appropriate targets and be prepared to engage with the community. And if seen as an “investment not a cost”, the returns to the university – and, indeed, the KTO itself – should be sustainable, he suggested.
ProTon Europe, EU, CUE
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