9 August 2023

Why ‘Professor’s Privilege’ is not a silver bullet for innovation

By Paul Seabright

Last week, a report from The Entrepreneurs Network think tank sparked a debate surrounding the involvement of university Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) in the process of research commercialisation.

The report acknowledges that university spin-out policy is an increasingly important part of the UK’s growth strategy, and a vital one to get right. Investing in science, technology and entrepreneurship will help keep the UK globally competitive, and ensuring spinout policy is fit for purpose is an essential part of this.

But its author also questions whether universities need to be involved in the commercialisation process at all.

The report proposed moving to a model of ‘Professor’s Privilege’ in which the academics, rather than the university, would own their intellectual property. The report suggests this model has worked in Sweden and would be a panacea for the UK, although it was abandoned elsewhere in Europe 20 years ago.

Unfortunately the report did not address some serious drawbacks to the idea of Professor’s Privilege in the 21st century.

One crucial issue is that research is not free. It is often funded, at least in part, by the state, meaning taxpayers have a vested interest in its outcomes. It is therefore both fair and necessary for universities to play a role in this process, ensuring taxpayers see a return on their investment, not least by reducing universities’ dependence on public funds. When universities are involved, they can protect the intellectual property generated through state funding, making it easier to reward all contributors appropriately and facilitate commercialisation.

Secondly, the report seems to understate the value of institutions which care deeply about research. Such universities will invest resources, time and enthusiasm into knowledge exchange and commercialisation efforts. They put time into creating the structures and cultures which allow great research – and therefore great research commercialisation – to happen. Such institution incentives are powerful forces when it comes to driving progress, which would be undermined in an academic-first model.

And thirdly, in the academic sector, inventions are rarely the product of a single individual; rather, they stem from collaborative teams and often spanning different universities. 

Dealing with numerous inventors and stakeholders can be incredibly complex, but having a focal institution overseeing the commercialisation process simplifies matters, ensuring that all parties are rewarded and have the rights to commercialise in one place. This simplified approach benefits both the universities and corporations seeking to license intellectual property. Pleas for having a single institution to deal with are the loudest from corporates and investors navigating the Swedish system.

Although the report hails the success of Professor’s Privilege in Sweden, it neglects to mention the crucial role played by the Swedish state in supporting regional offices, that are controlled by universities and function similarly to TTOs in the UK by providing essential support and expertise for commercialisation. 

Germany abandoned Professor’s Privilege in 2002, a study of Germany patent data in the following 10 years shows patents from academic institutions rose three and a half times, in contrast with falling numbers from the commercial sector. In the 2010s, Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich experimented again with Professor’s Privilege, stopped claiming inventions and passed ownership to its academics. This forced younger faculty to pursue local innovation agencies for support and soon led to the policy being reversed.

Commercialisation is not a solitary pursuit, it requires significant collaboration. TTOs play a vital role in this process by providing valuable services: managing patent costs, supplying commercial expertise and resolving legal issues and disputes. We have demonstrated this in Cambridge – where Cambridge Enterprise has helped file 304 patent applications, execute 144 licences, and support 34 new spin out companies in the past year alone. By supporting individual academics, TTOs help keep costs low and manage risk for the university, the researchers involved, the licensee and the investor.

The report suggests that Professor’s Privilege could be a silver bullet solution for fostering innovation. But I would argue the key lies in building ecosystems like Cambridge, where expertise, ambition and support thrive. Encouraging individuals is essential, but creating an environment that nurtures innovation and facilitates the commercialisation process is critical – and arguably even more important in our modern innovation system. TTOs help streamline the delivery of innovation, provide vital expertise, and benefits for multiple stakeholders in the research journey, and this is where the focus of commercialisation policy should lie.

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Dr Paul Seabright is Deputy Director at Cambridge Enterprise.