Commercialisation of public research

Rationale and objectives

The transfer, exploitation and commercialisation of public research results is a critical area of science, technology and innovation policy. Efforts to ring-fence public research in a context of fiscal austerity in many OECD countries – as well as competition from new players in Asia – have increased pressure on universities, public research institutions (PRIs) and governments to increase the economic outputs from and impact of investments in public research.
While knowledge and research generated by the public research system is diffused through a variety of channels – mobility of academic staff, scientific publications, conferences, contract research with industry and the licensing of university inventions – much of the policy focus in OECD countries has centred on promoting knowledge transfer via a dual, but rather linear, model of commercialisation. This model is characterised by supply-push forces whereby universities and PRIs transfer academic inventions via the sale, transfer or licensing of intellectual property, often on an exclusive basis, to existing firms or to new ventures (e.g. academic spin-offs). The converse of the supply-push model is a demand-pull model based on contract research or collaborative research and development (R&D) whereby universities and PRIs are solicited by industrial actors to find solutions to production and innovation problems.
These two previously distinct models or paths for commercialisation are increasingly integrated, with research and innovation relying on greater “openness” and collaboration both upstream, on the research side, and downstream, on the commercialisation path. Openness in science (open science) increases the channels for transferring and diffusing research results while open innovation in business firms creates a division of labour in the sourcing of ideas and their exploitation. This has given rise to intermediaries that broker commercialisation activities, notably intellectual property (IP) services.

Major aspects

Building the required institutional capabilities at universities and PRIs is central to public efforts to commercialise public research. Following the passage of the Bayh-Dole legislation in the United States – which gave public research institutions incentives to patent and license academic inventions – many countries have developed technology transfer and licensing offices (TTOs/TLOs) at universities and PRIs. However, only a few countries and a few institutions have achieved a track record in commercialising the results of public research through TTOs/TLOs. Moreover, many countries, universities and PRIs continue to base the productivity of TTOs on traditional measures of technology transfer such as patents and licenses. Even if these have been increasing in OECD countries (Figure 7.3), they represent a very small share of the knowledge that is transferred from universities and PRIs.
In response, OECD countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden have combined the institutional and legal support for technology transfer and commercialisation with support to entrepreneurial channels for commercialising knowledge: university start-ups, incubators and accelerators, mentoring and training for academic entrepreneurs, and policies to promote venture and angel capital, government seed funds or platforms to link angel investors and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
However, each stage of the commercialisation process has its own characteristics and further efforts may be needed to target the support instruments, with a special focus on the early stages of the process, the most difficult for SMEs and start-ups to overcome. Norway has developed measures for the commercialisation of research by publicly funded research institutes and organisations (the FORNY2020 programme) which supplies, among other things, proof-of-concept funding.

Recent policy trends

In recent years, many countries have sought to broaden the channels for commercialisation of public research by promoting two-way flows between industry and science, for example through public-private partnerships, joint research initiatives/centres, outward and inward licensing of IP by universities and PRIs, and incentives for the mobility of entrepreneurial academics. They have also sought to accelerate the pace of knowledge transfer in various ways. First, national patent systems have been enhanced to reduce risks and backlogs and to promote patenting by start-ups and SMEs (e.g. the US America Invents Act, the United Kingdom's fast track system for “green patent applications” , the acceleration of patent examinations in Japan and in Canada since March 2011, while in New Zealand, a new Patent Bill consistent with efforts to promote innovation and technology transfer is being considered).
There is also targeted support for IP management at PRIs through funding, guidelines and skills training. The UK government is establishing the National Intellectual Property Management Office to support capacity building in technology transfer and commercialisation of IP, including via partnerships with UK technology transfer offices and staff secondments. Australia's Commercialisation Australia programme provides a range of commercialisation support services of the order of USD 180 million (AUD 278 million) to 2014. Korea has announced an IP fund of USD 60 million (KRW 50 billion) for technology transfer and commercialisation by PRIs. To increase awareness and proficiency, Norway offers since 2010 a grant scheme supporting the development of new educational programmes for IP at higher education institutions. Similarly the United Kingdom has established the IP Fund to provide financial support to institutions for the statutory protection and maintenance of intellectual property rights (IPRs). Denmark's IPR Package and Facilitation of Co-operation on IPR scheme provides about USD 1 million (EUR 0.7 million) to assist companies and entrepreneurs manage IPRs.
National funding agencies (e.g. the National Institutes of Health [NIH] in the United States, model contracts for R&D collaboration in Denmark) and individual institutions have also made efforts to develop standard licensing agreements for academic inventions and to use collaborative intellectual property mechanisms such as patent pools, IP clearing houses, and IP sharing agreements to create new commercial opportunities.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many TTOs have expanded their role and services from managing technology transfer (invention disclosures, filing patents) to a wide range of IP management activities and have increased the quality of technology transfer staff through training and competitive employment policies.
Some countries and funding agencies such as the NIH in the United States and Canada's Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (through its new IP Policy) have made efforts to develop good practice policies for patenting and licensing of IP from public research with a view to encouraging broader diffusion of public research results, fostering knowledge spillovers and creating additional opportunities for commercialisation.
Another trend concerns efforts to align or co-ordinate a range of public instruments to support SMEs' capacity to commercialise knowledge. Commercialisation programmes tend to be decentralised and target support to a range of actors owing to the multi-phase process of commercialising research results. However, this can result in the loss of economies of scale or synergy effects. Efforts to diversify support while bringing support programmes under one “roof” are increasingly encouraged (e.g. France's SATT for creating companies to accelerate technology transfer or Japan's Innovation Network).
Finally, commercialisation policies tend to focus on national commercialisation pathways, yet the markets for IP and technology are increasingly international. Barriers to international commercialisation may include national differences in regulations, technology standards or IP rules. This situation contrasts with the well-established system of international research collaboration within and outside OECD countries.

Figure 7.3 Patents filed by public research institutions, 2000-02 and 2007-09
As a percentage of patent applications filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT)

Note: Public research institutions cover the government sector, higher education and hospitals. Patent applicant's names are allocated to institutional sectors using a methodology developed by Eurostat and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL). Owing to the significant variation in names recorded in patent documents, applicants be misallocated to sectors, thereby introducing biases in the resulting indicator. Only economies having filed for at least 250 patents over the period are included in the figure.

Source: OECD Patent Database, February 2012.

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