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Discussion with Tom Hockaday about his 30-year career in tech transfer

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The Knowledge Assets team recently held an in-conversation event with tech transfer veteran, Tom Hockaday. As an author and leading expert in university tech transfer, he has over 30 years of experience in the field. He formerly led the tech transfer activities at the University of Oxford between 2006 – 2016 and held a similar role at the University of Bristol after starting out working at University College London.

This event was an opportunity to hear more about his career, discuss case studies from his recently published book University Technology Transfer - What It Is and How to Do It and discuss the future of the tech transfer profession. Colleagues from a range of public sector organisations attended the event and participated in an engaging Q&A session.

This blog will summarise the pertinent points from what was a wide-ranging and stimulating session. But first, the blog will provide you with an introduction to tech transfer.

Tom Hockaday, an author and leading expert in university tech transfer

What is tech transfer?

Tech (or technology) transfer is the process of commercialising an organisation’s valuable research, knowledge or technology to help with its wider application and distribution. Tech transfer is important because the public can benefit directly from the research that has gone into the end product. For example, researchers from the University of Bristol developed a unique device that could be used to test people for macular pigment density, which is one of the risk factors for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is a leading cause of blindness worldwide in people aged over 55 and is estimated to cost the UK healthcare system £1.6 billion annually. This novel device will enable optometrists to rapidly assess macular pigment density, and therefore a risk of developing AMD, in less than a minute.

This innovation arose from funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council carried out at the University of Bristol. In 2016, Dr Temple who developed the device received £500,000 in funding from Innovate UK, which launched the University of Bristol start-up, Azul Optics Ltd. This start-up then went on to commercialise the device and later secured additional private investment.

Therefore, tech transfer can help support economic growth via many different channels such as multi-million-pound investments, improved technology and productivity, and even due to the creation of jobs that result from the development, manufacturing, and end sale of the product.

Innovation can come from unexpected places

We learnt from Tom that in the early 2000s, a new spin-out company was formed by a PhD student and his supervisor at the University of Oxford. That company was NaturalMotion, a digital animation company that sold for over $500m in 2014. The University of Oxford had a small stake in the company and ended up exiting with $50m and reinvested some of the money into the university department from which the company was formed - the university’s Zoology department! Reflecting on this, Tom was amazed at how a digital animation company had unexpectedly come from a Zoology Department. But more importantly, Tom noted that it was more about the people involved in driving the research and innovation and their positive attitude to commercialisation that allowed this great innovation to arise.

 Take advantage of commercialisation opportunities for innovation you have developed

Tom presented us with a historical case study about a missed opportunity concerning Penicillin, which was discovered in the UK by Alexander Fleming in the 1920s, and developed at Oxford in the 1930s. The UK were unable to lend the manufacturing resource to the production of Penicillin as World War II had broken out and the chemical industry was operating at capacity. Researchers who expanded on Fleming’s work looked to the US to help mass-produce the drug. This story is considered a major example of how inventions developed by British scientists were ‘lost’ to US commercialisation. This example helped shape Britain’s approach to tech transfer as it fed into the creation of the National Research Development Corporation in the late 1940s, a non-departmental government body tasked with conducting tech transfer from the public sector to the private sector.

However, this was not the end of missed opportunities. Another big miss was decades later: this time with monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies had been developed in Britain and played a key role in the development of the biotechnology industry of the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, Britain did not patent this opportunity and so US scientists patented and commercialised it instead. Tom highlighted that life-changing or ground-breaking innovations needed protection otherwise there was a risk that they could be commercialised by another body.

Invest in your connections

Reflecting on his career, Tom felt that investing in personal connections with colleagues and developing strong stakeholder relationships was extremely important because in hindsight it could have helped expedite the innovation process and bring more ideas to the table early on. He reflected on the success of Oxford’s Physics Department in the 2000s but Oxford University Innovation (OUI), which was the university’s tech transfer office, were not receiving any projects from the department. So, OUI hired a physicist who was able to facilitate the discussions with the Physics Department, as he knew their culture and the best ways to engage with them. This was not only helpful in generating a dialogue between OUI and the Physics Department, but it helped OUI secure projects from them too. Tom later noted that having a subject specialist at hand can be very important in helping to commercialise opportunities in fields of which you have limited knowledge, as well as helping to accelerate the process.

Business demand for innovation still appears constrained  

As the environment has become an increasing issue of public concern, more researchers are turning their attention to addressing environmental change and climate-related issues. The researchers behind YASA Limited (a world-leading manufacturer of electric motors) turned their attention to ‘cleantech’ and closed an £18m funding round in 2019 to help their company meet the rapidly growing demand from the automotive and aerospace sectors. YASA’s compact, lightweight, and powerful electric motors would provide manufacturers with the opportunity to improve the performance of their vehicles while reducing the weight which in turn, could help with the manufacture’s impact on the environment.

Although this was a good example of a business providing clean technology to the market, Tom felt there was still a problem on the demand side for innovation in general (referring to the 2003 HM Treasury Lambert Review) but noted that the supply of commercial ideas from universities remained strong. He suggested a way to help ease the demand situation was to have more interactions between stakeholders on both sides of the demand and supply of research because it would help create the community of people where they could get together and address issues. In turn, this could lead to better and more innovations being introduced to the market that would satisfy demand.

What is the future of innovation?

To close off this blog, what do Augmented Reality (AR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), and Machine Learning (ML) have in common? Yes, that’s right, they’re two-letter acronyms. But more importantly, Tom noted that these were the ones to look out for and he expects that the fusion between these technologies with healthcare data and health care interventions are going to have a significant societal impact. It was only in 2019, when Oxford University, Sensyne Health, Evotec, and Oxford Science Innovation partnered up to create LAB10x, a business incubator that would use Artificial Intelligence to accelerate data-driven drug discovery. So, watch this space!

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