How best to trans­fer tech: peo­ple or patents?

Sum­mit dis­cusses work­ing with in­dus­try and IP as ‘drag on in­no­va­tion’. John Ross writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - WORLD ACADEMIC SUMMIT: NEWS - John.ross@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

An ob­ses­sion with safe­guard­ing in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty is un­der­min­ing the “vir­tu­ous cir­cle” of uni­ver­sity-in­dus­try col­lab­o­ra­tion, sec­tor lead­ers have warned.

Robert Mor­ris, for­mer vi­cepres­i­dent, global labs at IBM, told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s World Aca­demic Sum­mit that in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty is­sues were a “stum­bling block” in the trans­la­tion of uni­ver­sity in­no­va­tions. “Fund­ing is pur­ported to change money into ideas, and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty is about turn­ing ideas back into money,” said Pro­fes­sor Mor­ris, now a pro­fes­sor in the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. “I’d love to say that this cir­cle was an ef­fi­cient cy­cle, like the en­ergy cy­cle or the cell cy­cle, but it has a lot of fric­tion.”

Pro­fes­sor Mor­ris was part of a panel at the event ex­am­in­ing uni­ver­sity part­ner­ships with in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment. He said that mov­ing peo­ple be­tween uni­ver­si­ties and in­dus­try – rather than pur­su­ing patents or li­cences – was the best way of en­cour­ag­ing in­no­va­tion and spurring eco­nomic im­pact.

Fel­low pan­el­list Bernd Hu­ber, pres­i­dent of LMU Mu­nich, sug­gested that some in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty agree­ments were ir­rel­e­vant by the time they were signed.

“At my uni­ver­sity we have very good lawyers,” he said. “They are very pa­tient. At a cer­tain point, sud­denly an agree­ment can be signed. You won­der if you are too late be­cause it was such a long time ago [that] you thought of it.”

Pro­fes­sor Hu­ber said that “prac­ti­cal prob­lems” in­evitably arose in part­ner­ships be­tween busi­nesses and uni­ver­si­ties be­cause their in­ter­ests were “not en­tirely par­al­lel”.

“For ex­am­ple, sci­en­tists want to pub­lish rather quickly. In­dus­try is of­ten in­ter­ested to put the re­sults on the side, so to say. These are typ­i­cal con­flicts. Com­pa­nies need time. That’s part of life.”

Stephen Toope, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge, sug­gested that higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions needed to learn to live with te­dious in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty ne­go­ti­a­tions. “It’s a big waste of time to

try to imag­ine the per­fect IP pol­icy,” he said.

“We just have to un­der­stand that trans­fer is go­ing to be one of the ar­eas where there is con­stant ir­ri­ta­tion, and not imag­ine there’s a per­fect pol­icy out there.”

But Pro­fes­sor Toope echoed com­ments made ear­lier in the con­fer­ence by Brian Sch­midt, vice-chan­cel­lor of Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, in cau­tion­ing uni­ver­si­ties “not to get hung up” on li­cens­ing in­come. “That’s not where the big ben­e­fit is,” Pro­fes­sor Toope in­sisted.

“The big ben­e­fit, as Brian em­pha­sised, is in en­sur­ing that you’re seen to be part of a healthy ecosys­tem. That you’re help­ing to drive it, work­ing both with in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment, and you’re not there to get the short-term gain.”

Pro­fes­sor Mor­ris said that in fields such as in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, uni­ver­si­ties should “just say ‘no’” to in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“Let’s face it: most soft­ware patents are a waste of time,” he said. “There are very few con­trol­ling patents. You get into these ridicu­lous port­fo­lio ex­change and com­pen­sa­tion mod­els. It slows pro­fes­sors and se­ri­ous re­searchers from work­ing to­gether.”

He said patents had their place in fields such as drug re­search. “But for the ma­jor­ity of what’s be­ing gen­er­ated to­day, you can just say ‘no’ and make all the IP open. [You’ll] save six to 12 months in ne­go­ti­a­tions. Ev­ery­thing [you] do to­gether will be open and pub­lish­able.”

Lily Chan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of NUS En­ter­prise, the Sin­ga­pore uni­ver­sity’s in­no­va­tion arm, said that

li­cens­ing was a long-stand­ing topic of con­ver­sa­tion in Sin­ga­pore. “We were asked, ‘how many patents do you have? How many li­cences?’” she said.

“I said, ‘You tell me. If you want 100, we’ll pro­duce 100. But where is the eco­nomic im­pact? What is the im­pact we’re try­ing to pro­duce?’”

Dr Chan said that in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty still fea­tured heav­ily in fo­rum dis­cus­sions. “It’s im­por­tant to have it, but we need to think about it.

“If you have it, you’ve got to make use of it. A patent isn’t like good wine. It doesn’t age very well.”

High im­pact re­searcher mo­bil­ity spurs in­no­va­tion, says Robert Mor­ris

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