Issue Date: April 5, 2004
Imperial College Seeds The U.K.'s Knowledge Economy
Things began to happen at Imperial College London's technology transfer office in 1997, according to Brian Graves, who heads the office's physical sciences and engineering technology team. Launched in 1988 to nurture and turn out start-ups, the office had only five successes in its first nine years. Since 1997, however, it has added more than 50 spin-offs.
The boost in activity coincided with the advent of Britain's Labour Party government under Prime Minister Tony Blair. The new government started encouraging commercialization activity at universities in an effort to foster a "knowledge economy," says Graves. The school's tech transfer office began receiving financial support from the government, beginning with a $7 million seed fund, for its efforts at identifying and incubating early-stage companies, particularly in biotechnology.
"We were able to put additional people in and build a resource," he says. "We developed a process for creating spin-off companies and built up a network of investors and service providers. We got the message out to academics. With this seed fund, we were able to engage consultants and entrepreneurs to help build business propositions and prove the concept of new technology."
The tech transfer office at Imperial has strategic alliances with Columbia University in New York City, and with Exploit Technologies, a consortium of Singapore university technology transfer groups. The partners pool intellectual property and team up to network with investors and other market resources.
Graves says new companies are developed by a "series of champions" beginning with an academic who believes that a scientific development has commercial potential. The idea is reviewed by a four-member tech transfer team, which applies for patents where appropriate and begins commercial assessment.
Then comes the development of a business plan and the formation of a management team. "Our model is to involve an external commercial manager as early as possible so that there is always a strong commercial bias," he says. The members of the tech transfer team are Ph.D. scientists with some form of commercial business experience, according to Graves.
One company launched from Imperial, Turbo Genset, a maker of small power generation systems, is traded on the London Stock Exchange. Most of the spin-offs are at earlier stages of development. While Membrane Extraction Technology is one of the smaller companies, Graves points out that it has succeeded in establishing a revenue stream fairly early on by forming research relationships with potential customers and securing its supply of membranes through Grace Davison.
Most large universities in the U.K. have tech transfer offices, Graves notes. While the practice varies widely throughout Europe, U.K. institutions tend to follow what Graves calls the "American model," focusing on spin-offs and licensing deals. On the continent, new ventures tend to remain closely moored to academic laboratories. "There is less spin-off activity and less of the support mechanisms that we have in place here," he says.
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