Siloed universities risk holding back tech innovation – City A.M.

By: Jeff Skinner
It is only a 10 minute cycle between London Business School, by Regent’s Park, and University College London. But despite their physical proximity and complementary knowledge bases, you’d be surprised at how rarely they work together. 
I should know, for almost twenty years I was Commercial Director at University College London and I spent countless hours putting in place schemes to help researchers commercialise their promising technologies. While there were some wonderful successes, there were nowhere near enough new ventures given the abundance of ideas, talent and drive.
In 2007, when I joined the London Business School, I was struck by how few of the ideas brought forward by students were based on cutting-edge science. Yet just down the road, there was great technology waiting for someone to make a business out of it. 
It’s been one of the greatest disappointments of my career that we’ve never found a way to systematically build teams of venture-hungry researchers and MBAs. 
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A new approach from the London Business School could finally crack this conundrum. A course – known as innovation to market – brings together early career researchers from London’s top universities and business school students with a tech background together to build credible, investment-ready ventures.  
In its first year we recruited 30 students and 13 early career researchers from across the country. Each researcher brought with them a technology that they wanted to commercialise. These included a microbiome-based anti-malarial, Internet of Things devices powered by scavenged sound, a hydrogel synthetic meat scaffold, a dental-repair toothpaste and haptic devices that touch you as another human might.
Over two terms students, academics and researchers worked up to the final assessment: a Dragons’ Den style pitch in front of some of the UK’s foremost tech investors. 
The teaching sessions were all based on real tech-based start-ups and we invited successful founder teams to share what they’d learned and tech investors to say what they look for. 
We also, crucially, put a huge emphasis on socialising. Students networked over breakfast before seminars and at lunch after every session. The key to a successful startup is often mutual chemistry, trust, knowledge and respect – all of which rely on the gradual building of social capital.
We also worked hard to get the students and researchers to disregard any biases they had. We wanted them to dispel any notions that the business students should become the chief executives, while the researchers focused on the technology side. When pitch day came around, our experiment produced overwhelming feedback from our investor judges that all the ventures had potential.
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Great technology lurks in every university. The standard response of universities has been to bolt-on a “Technology Transfer Office” to assist and enthuse the researcher. These can be effective but generally they only have the bandwidth to cope with low-hanging fruit. 
If we really want to commercialise the technology that our universities are world-class at producing, we need more alchemy. It’s time to meld teams that combine research and commercial expertise into effective commercialisation teams. 
The big learning we should take from this course is that even if a company owns the technology it doesn’t own the technologist. A lesson that anyone, be they students or industry veterans should heed. 
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