I don’t imagine I will go back there often, but I found myself at the Carlton Club last night. I hadn’t been snapped up as the newest recruit to the Conservative party but rather, I was there to hear Sir Greg Winter FRS talk about the commercialisation of research at a meeting organised by the think tank Politeia. With the confirmation arriving just yesterday afternoon that the House of Commons S&T committee will publish their report on the ‘valley of death’ next Wednesday (the Royal Society’s response to the consultation will be available shortly), it seemed like good timing to get the thoughts of one of the UK’s celebrated ‘commercialisers’ on the topic.
After a whistle stop of tour of Sir Greg’s adventures with monoclonal antibodies, he offered insights into how he and colleagues managed to develop and spin out their research in to billion dollar success stories. How did he do it? With the support of existing, flexible research funding from the MRC, personal contacts, a bit of personal entrepreneurial zeal, and a plucky (Australian) company willing to ‘take a punt’. ‘Big pharma’ swooped in much further down the chain to buy up the small firms which had taken on the risk that the big companies were not willing to gamble on at an early stage.
There is no doubt that Greg is a bit of a poster boy for commercialisation of research, and a great case study in how basic research can lead to both economic success and health benefits. So how would he build the bridge across the ‘valley of death’ between research and commercial application? To the delight of the non-interventionist-leaning Politeia, Greg’s main call last night was to rethink the role of technology transfer offices in universities. TTOs, he argued, over-bureaucratise the links between the academic and the industrialist or investor, and whilst being well meaning, create more hurdles for the academic-entrepreneur than they clear.
Much better, suggested Greg, would be for the public sector TTOs to concentrate on providing networking opportunities for their academics and industries and investors – a matchmaking service – and for the facilitation of commercial activities to be conducted by commercial, private sector organisations. Tech transfer today is too often assessed on uncommercial metrics – the number of patents rather than the value that the patents are delivering, etc; if the object is to make money from research, you need to be much less abashed about the profit motive.
Greg’s personal experience would certainly suggest that the entrepreneurial-academic can find their own way across valley without lots of institutionalised support. We shall see on Wednesday if this, or anything similar finds its way in to the House of Commons report. In the mean time, maybe I will start thinking about whether the Society should set up a speed dating service…