From the lab to industry

Transforming the results of research into an innovative product involves a long commercial, legal and social process which extends beyond the realm of science. In Old Europe, where industry and academia have developed independently of one another, it is a particularly complex phenomenon. The EU is aware of the problem and has consequently made improving knowledge transfer one of the six priorities of the European Research Area Vision 2020 (EEA).

Europe produces more science and engineering graduates than anywhere else. It has the highest proportion of scientific publications per capita in the world, and in just a few years has become the champion of public access to research results. However, if one judges by the number of patent submissions, it is the United States that is at the head of the pack. Despite consistent growth over the last 15 years, publicly funded R&D institutions are responsible for less than 10% of patents filed in the EU. And less than one in ten innovative firms count them among their main partners(1). It is therefore time to discuss an entirely different type of European leadership - under-exploited knowledge.

A lasting partnership – instructions for use

The Clear-Up project, funded by the Seventh Framework Programme, is a perfect example of the EU’s vision of ‘open innovation’. The project represents all of the links in the innovation chain – universities, industry actors and even a property developer. They come together to achieve a goal that is one and the same: the enhanced energy performance of existing buildings. Future works will run the gamut from essential research in nanotechnology to full-scale testing in a hotel in southern Spain.

Udo Weimar, researcher at the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Tübingen (DE), dedicates half his time to the coordination of research consortiums. “A distinction should first be made between pre-existing knowledge and knowledge produced by research. If only one member is responsible for a discovery, s/he files a patent in his/her name. Otherwise, all of the partners involved file it together. As for the others, they can capitalise on this knowledge free of charge for the duration of the project (four years, ed). They will then have to negotiate a new agreement”.

Defining shared agendas

Despite initiatives, such as the European Technology Platforms or the R&D network, Eureka, which facilitate the coordination of research initiatives, Clear-up constitutes yet another exception in today’s European Research Area (ERA). Nonetheless, the era of researchers working alone in their laboratories is over, according to Marja Makarow, CEO of the European Science Foundation (ESF), the representative association of research institutions. “We are aware that we must respond to industrial needs. Inter-sectoral researcher mobility must also be encouraged, as well as that of doctoral researchers”, she adds.

To promote exchange and innovation, Europe has also established the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), the first European initiative which will fully integrate the three sides of the ‘Knowledge Triangle’ - Higher Education, Research, Business-Innovation - to form ‘Knowledge and Innovation Communities’ dedicated to common thematic areas. The first of these should be established in 2010.

More enterprising universities

In April 2008, the Commission communicated a series of recommendations to Member States, calling on them to render knowledge transfer policies a strategic mission of universities. The Commission also published a Code of Practice as guidance for these institutions. While all concerned may not yet have received the Code, the distribution process appears to be well underway.

A good number of universities handle matters, such as the selection of discoveries worth protecting, identification of good partners in industry and the most appropriate form of innovation-exploitation, in a rather empirical manner. Bruno van Pottelsberghe, Advisor to the Rector and President of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) for technology transfer issues, prefers to see the glass as “half full” on this issue. “Many universities have established very competent knowledge transfer offices, whose work cannot be compared to that carried out ten years ago. At ULB, for example, we file between 25 and 35 patents per year. On the other hand, I notice that some businesses are having difficulty adapting because, in the past, they could ‘contain’ the benefits of technology transfers far more easily, by employing professors as consultants or filing the patents themselves”.

A start-up, and then?

A serious structural barrier further explains our comparatively limited capacity to “extract gold” from science -- the absence of a unique European patent. The European Patent Office (EPO) is charged with examining and granting patents. These patents are then registered in the various countries requested, against renewal fees and translation costs. In Europe, a patent therefore costs from 3 to 10 times more than in the United States. Given that intellectual property laws change from one country to the next, the disputes are numerous.

“At ULB, when a patent is filed with the European Patent Office, but there are no direct market opportunities through exploitation rights or the creation of a spin-off, we let the patent fall into the public domain, otherwise it would be much too expensive to process”, laments Bruno van Pottelberghe.

Andrew Dearing is Secretary General of the European Industrial Research Management Association and was part of the expert group charged with analysing the results of the Green Paper on the ERA in 2007. According to him, the entire legal, economic and regulatory system requires reform. “It is often said that there is less venture capital in Europe. I am, however, more inclined to believe that it is the prospect of returns on investment that are considerably more limited here. And the number of start-ups which go global is much higher in the United States. This has nothing to do with the quality of the research, but rather the conditions in which the businesses operate”. The major challenge facing the European Research Area is the need to expand beyond its scientific core, in order to avoid a “blackout”.

Laurence Buelens

  1. “A more research-intensive and integrated European Research Area - Science, Technology and Competitiveness key figures report 2008/2009”, report published by the Commission
  2. “Lost Property: the European patent system and why it doesn’t work”, Bruegel blueprint vol. IX, Brussels, 2009.


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“No such thing as a European technology market”

Here are two questions for Bruno van Pottelsberghe, Associate Researcher at the BRUEGEL think tank in Brussels and author of a study on the disfunctions of the patent system in Europe (2).

What are the main problems caused by the current situation?

“Costs, legal uncertainty and levels of complexity are all too high. Current patent policy favours the granting of monopolies. In Europe, the situation resembles Swiss cheese, since a patent will very rarely be filed in all countries. The average is six, but many SMEs limit themselves to two or three, due to a lack of funds. This already limits their prospects of internationalisation. In fact, there is no such thing as a European technology market.”

The idea of a Community patent dates back to 1962. After an agreement by the Competitiveness Council on a ‘common policy approach’ in 2003, Ministers still cannot agree on the means of implementation. How can this stalemate be explained?

“A number of actors would lose certain sources of revenue with the introduction of a Community patent. The current system provokes numerous disputes and generates considerable revenue for patent lawyers and advisors. Translators also benefit considerably from the process. National patent offices would also lose revenue from renewal fees if there were only one port of entry. These offices advise and influence the political powers that be and the attachment of certain countries to their language – such as Spain, which demands that Spanish be an official language of the European patent system – is at times exploited by certain actors for less honourable reasons. In my mind, a European leader will need to “sweeten this pill”.”


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