Leading academic entrepreneur calls for overhaul of university IP policy: give it away to SMEs
One of Cambridge’s most respected computer scientists and successful entrepreneurs is calling for a major shakeup of UK universities IP policy in the hope of driving further innovation and creating more successful companies.
Professor Andy Hopper is using his inaugural speech as president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to argue that SMEs should be given open access to university IP for virtually no cost.
Hopper told Cabume the British public has already paid for much of the research through the taxes that go to universities: I would argue for a university making free open access to stuff that’s paid for by taxpayer. It will increase the chance of contract research to that university and benevolent donation.
Hopper said universities need to go for as much volume as possible and that by taking a small goodwill donation – that means it’s optional – of one or two per cent of the shares in the companies that exploit the IP together with an increase in contract research which he believes would follow, then overall income at the universities would increase.
While this may cause consternation amongst inventors keen to commercialise their research, Hopper says they need to be realistic and not count their chickens before they hatch. For the inventor the important thing is to get things going, get them tested. The world is complex and having IP does not guarantee success, there’s a long way to go following the research.
The inventor would not necessarily work with the company exploiting the technology, but would be in a good position to do so. As inventor you can get a good deal with the company. If you’re not sure how to do that then come and get mentored by me and I’ll show you have to get a good deal.
The idea won’t strike some Cabume readers as particularly new. Almost a year ago to the day Cabume reported Hermann Hauser’s suggestion of a goodwill based approach to technology transfer whereby any venture created in Cambridge and employing Cambridge University alumni could donate one per cent of its shares to the University when they start up.
While Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s technology transfer business, reports 68 companies in its portfolio (pdf), the Computer Laboratory alone, of which Hopper is the head, claims to have almost 200 companies started by its staff and graduates.
These include Virata, part of a $1.3bn merger, and Arm, now worth over £8.1 billion. Elsewhere in the University there’s Autonomy, acquired for £6.9bn by HP. Through Cambridge Enterprise the University did have a stake in Xensource, sold to Citrix for $500m, but with Citrix no longer part of its stated portfolio, if subsequent accounts are at all an indication it didn’t receive a major windfall from the sale.
Cambridge Enterprise CEO, Tony Raven, does recognise there’s an issue both in terms of the return the University is producing from its technology and the amount of support it can offer. His preferred approach though seems to be a large investment fund that can participate in larger late stage funding rounds.
It is a topic Hopper too has also alluded to in the past. At the BBC Micro’s 30th birthday celebration Hopper, who helped design its microprocessors while working for Acorn, said: I despair at the chasm grown between university and industry, instead of a revolving door, we have a turnstile.
This stands at odds with the founding premise of what became known as the Cambridge Phenomenon which was to put the brains of Cambridge University at disposal of the problems of British industry. Over 50 years on and the struggle continues.
Hopper also believes not enough is being done to bring technology into Whitehall thinking and procurement and will call for the creation of a Chief Engineering and Technology Adviser who can help the UK and government harness technological advances.
The IET points to what it calls a raft of massive engineering projects that are in the pipeline, such as smart grids, High Speed 2, faster broadband networks and new or expanded airports, which could benefit from the new post. It is high time that we had a CTO for UK plc, said Hopper.
In the UK, engineering is still undervalued despite our rich industrial heritage and track record in pioneering new technologies. This is reflected in the make-up of the Government and must change to help turn around the UK economy.
Hopper, who also heads the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory, has played a key role in the Cambridge technology cluster’s story. As well as the work at Acorn and setting up the Cambridge Ring, one of the first Local Area Networks, he co-founded ATML, the leading chip supplier for wireless broadband units that became Virata and eventually part of that $1.3bn merger. Hopper continued to run Olivetti Research, which later became AT&T Labs, birthplace for companies such as RealVNC and Ubisense, the last Cambridge company to have undertaken an IPO.