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Commercialising research might be best left to researchers

There is little information on whether Europe is good or bad at technology transfer. Until more is known, efforts to increase it might do more harm than good, says Åsa Lindholm-Dahlstrand.

There is a widespread belief that the EU is strong in basic research but underperforms in commercialising that work. To try to resolve this European paradox, as it’s sometimes called, several countries have transferred intellectual-property rights from researchers—who hold them under a system called the professor privilege—to universities.

Both the diagnosis of the problem and the suggested cure may be misguided. Data on research commercialisation are so poor that it is impossible to tell whether the European paradox is a genuine phenomenon.

When my colleagues and I reviewed the available evidence on commercialisation in Sweden—which, despite much debate, is one of the few European countries to retain the professor privilege—the picture turned out to be brighter than it is often painted.

Sweden’s government does not collect data on university spinouts or the number of patents filed by academics. Published analyses often fail to account for the time-lags between research and its commercialisation, and often neglect to look beyond high technology. But several studies in the past decade have given us a clear idea of how these activities are carried out in Sweden. 

Although the data are not as solid as one would wish, it is clear that there is little basis for the belief that commercialisation is poor. The best evidence, for example, is that several hundred companies are spun out of Swedish universities each year. On a per capita basis, that is more than in the United States.

Measures of patenting lead to much the same conclusion. A detailed search of patent databases reveals that some 6 per cent of Swedish patents originate in universities, similar to the figure for the US. In Sweden, this activity is hard to detect because more than 80 per cent of the patents for academics’ inventions are held by companies rather than by academics or universities. But in terms of generating patents and getting IP to businesses, Sweden seems to perform well.

These findings suggest that criticism of the professor privilege is misplaced. Researchers are often more able to realise their work’s potential than universities, and are likely to have a more flexible and imaginative view of what this might involve. This IP system is also often cheaper and less bureaucratic than the tech-transfer machinery that has sprung up in universities in the past 20 years. When Danish universities, for example, took control of academic IP in 2000, revenues from commercialisation went up but not enough to keep pace with the costs of the extra staff needed to oversee commercialisation. Evaluations showed that the move also made companies more reluctant to invest in universities.

Overall, awarding IP rights to universities rather than researchers risks hampering technology transfer. It can disrupt the knowledge-sharing networks linking researchers and industry, introduce a bias to the types of technology that are focused on, reduce the number of entrepreneurial spin-offs, and carry costs that universities may be unwilling to meet.

To shed light on international differences in IP systems, we compared the University of Oxford, which owns the IP generated by its researchers, with Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. We found that Chalmers generates far more spinouts than Oxford, both in absolute terms and per researcher, but that they are usually not patent-based and do not grow as fast as those from Oxford. Researchers at Oxford also do a considerable amount of entrepreneurship outside the formal IP system. This is not necessarily a problem—an entrepreneurial university should encourage such activity.

Our analysis suggests that to judge the commercialisation of research on spinouts and patents gives too narrow a view. As well as university entrepreneurship taking place inside and outside the formal IP system, we must recognise, and if possible measure, the other ways in which knowledge and resources are exchanged and cocreated by universities and industry. The impact of this activity is mediated through markets and perhaps most importantly through networks, which are very strong in Sweden. These indirect effects are so significant that they should be included in any impact assessment seeking to capture how academic research contributes to commercialisation.

Sweden is not the only country in which there is a tension between the empirical data and widespread concern about the European paradox. One way to relieve this tension would be to conduct more internationally comparative studies, generating a solid evidence base that can inform policy. The increasing emphasis on innovation in EU research policy makes getting information on these issues more important than ever.

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Åsa Lindholm-Dahlstrand is a professor in the Centre for Innovation, Research and Competence in the Learning Economy at Lund University, Sweden. For more on the research in this article see Research Policy (v42, p874).