Researchers – they are not all the same
23rd January 2017
Isis Innovation was built on the foundation “Isis helps researchers who want help to commercialise the results of their research” (Isis Innovation was renamed Oxford University Innovation in 2016). This approach was in place well before I started working there in 2000; I came to see it as the touchstone for the organisation, and central to a successful university technology transfer programme. It was all about helping researchers do something they wanted to do; they chose, there was no compulsion for researchers to become involved; and crucially they got to decide the definition of ‘help’, not us.
We didn’t spend much time thinking about the reasons behind why the researchers got in touch with us. We had come to accept it was a combination of motivations: seeing their results put into practice, a sense of obligation, make some money, move with the times, keep up with the neighbours etc.
In November 2016 I visited a number of UK universities, all in the Russell Group, and all active in technology commercialisation. My visits included the University of Cambridge, a world famous university in the east of England, and its technology transfer company Cambridge Enterprise Ltd. It is a thinking kind of place and I heard from the CEO, Dr Tony Raven, about how they have identified three categories of researchers, grouped in terms of the researchers’ motivations to engage with Cambridge Enterprise and the technology commercialisation process.
The three categories for the motivations of researchers, in my own words, as I recall them being described, are:
1. The researcher feels an obligation to contact the TTO (Technology Transfer Office) in order to win research funding to pursue their fundamental interest i.e. the research itself.
2. The researcher wants the research outputs to have an impact in society, beyond academia and academic publications, but without themselves becoming too involved. For example, clinicians who do not actually want to be involved in commercialisation themselves, but want to support it, so research outputs are developed to provide benefits to people.
3. The researcher is directly motivated to get involved in technology commercialisation, wants to set up a company or support a licence, has a great idea, wants to make money, wants to create impact, and wants to commit time to make it happen.
This is very useful stuff for the TTO, enabling the TTO to develop the service offering it provides to the researchers in its university, and adopt the right approach to each user.
It is all about helping researchers do something they want to do. The more the TTO understands why researchers are contacting the TTO and engaging in technology commercialisation, the better.
This approach from Cambridge Enterprise on motivations, leads on to looking at a couple of other dimensions to this researcher categorisation as well. The level of experience of the researchers involved and the technology sector they are working in.
This is a fairly obvious point; it makes a substantial difference whether the researcher has been involved in technology commercialisation before. This may have been at the same university, or a previous university employer. The involvement may have been direct, as a named inventor on a patent for example, or from a distance, observing colleagues and learning from their experiences. Past experiences may have been good, bad or indifferent; knowing about them is useful for the TT project manager. The researcher and TT project manager can discuss what worked well, what went wrong, how a previous university may differ in approach from the current one, and what the researcher wants to happen this time. All these points will help the TTO to provide a better service to the researcher.
“Technology transfer policies need to take account of the characteristics of exploitation for different technology sectors.” Yes indeed! This quote is from the McMillan Report, published in the UK in September 2016: ‘University Knowledge Exchange (KE) Framework: good practice in technology transfer. Report to the UK higher education sector and HEFCE by the McMillan group.’
The section on Technology Transfer Practice includes the following: “Technology transfer policies need to take account of the characteristics of exploitation for different technology sectors. Different technology transfer sectors have different exploitation pathways” (page 21). The Report illustrates the point with a comparison of ‘life science’ and ‘physical science’ sector differentiation from research at Imperial College London Business School, and also describes the different approaches for Engineering Hardware, Human Therapeutics, and Software by way of illustration. It is well worth reading these sections.
The researcher is likely to have a reasonable understanding of how companies in the relevant sector operate. The TTO needs to have people with commercial experience in this sector expertise as well.
Social Sciences and Humanities
There is another sectoral point. The fastest growing area in knowledge exchange is how to help researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities. That is fastest growing in terms of the number of new sessions at various conferences for KE, KT, TT workers (Knowledge Exchange, Knowledge Transfer, Technology Transfer). This interest can be traced back in the UK to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework focus on Impact. How can the existing KE, KT, TT offices and units support researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities? What support do these researchers want, and what is the nature of the opportunities arising from their research. Oxford University Innovation website has two new sections, ‘Engaging with the Humanities’ and ‘Engaging with Social Sciences’. Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, herself an historian, endorses these and looks forward ‘to observing the developments still to come in future years’.
Opportunities coming out of the Social Sciences and Humanities are unlikely to be technology-based. They are far more likely to be new ways to collaborate with companies and institutions, service based start-ups, and the continuing development of consulting opportunities. TTO’s will need to listen to the researchers in these areas to ask them what they want and explore how the TTO can help, if at all.
Good TTO’s have strong experience in developing effective relationships with outside organisations, in developing and maintaining networks of people interested in university collaboration, and in contract negotiations. These experiences and skills are likely to be of benefit to researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities.
How do you know what a researcher wants from the TTO? How do you know what past experiences the researcher has in technology transfer?
Researchers are not all the same; in fact none are the same, they are all different, and special. Whilst TTO’s are accustomed to this in general, transferring this general point into a detailed understanding of researchers’ motivations and experiences, and relevant sector features, will help the TTO support its researchers and university.
The first step can be to develop a framework for identifying the motivation, experience and sector of the researchers you are trying to help.
Technology Transfer Innovation