So we use PatSnap to answer commercial questions about the space that an invention is in. Who is active in this space? Are there some big companies operating in it? Are they filing more patents, or has the heat already gone out of the space. Basically we’re using it to understand what an idea might potentially be worth
City, University of London is among the top 4% of world universities according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016, and has an international reputation for world-class research and education. The team helps businesses to accelerate their growth and expand their own services by working with the university on intellectual property licensing, joint ventures, and other forms of collaboration.
Can you tell us about your specific role?
"Well we’re a university, not a company and Technology Transfer is quite a small group within the university.
"Our role is to look at submissions of potential projects that might be suitable for commercialisation. Our projects begin when academics call us, or e-mail us, and say “I've got this great idea - I wonder whether it'll make money or not?”
"So what we're running is effectively a small business where we’re trying to take raw technology and commercialise it; and everything in between. That involves dealing with the finances, negotiating license agreements, creating spin outs and assessing whether a project is worthy of being taken forward.
"When we've decided we've got a suitable project but it needs some funding to bring it to proof of concept stage, we need to find ways of funding it - sometimes internally, sometimes by trying to find partner organisations. Other times you can profile the technology and get an idea of who might be interested in it, what the supply chain looks like, and who we should be contacting to try and sell it to them."
Can you tell me about some of the projects you’ve taken through to commercialisation?
"We tend to commercialise ideas either by licensing the IP to a company that already exists, and if there isn't a company that already exists, or we can't find anyone interested, we form a company. And then we try and find someone to run it.
"For example, we’ve got a handful of spin out companies, including an engineering company up in East Kilbride in Scotland. We’ve got two companies in London that provide vision-related services through a software as a service business model, and a bit of hardware, and we've got some companies still at such an early stage that they’re still trying to get funding to take the next step in their development."
Can you tell me about your key objectives?
"The key objective is to try to monetise intellectual property research output. And if we can't monetise it, then at least try and create a societal impact. We can then use it as an example in the Research Excellence Framework which will come about in 2020 or 2021. And obviously, you need to prepare for that in advance, because you have to submit stories about how research has impacted on society and the economy. So even if we're not able to create licensors, or spin out companies, we might still have collaborated with a company and contributed to some product developments or improvements.
"For example, we've been contributors in turning research into something useful that has a societal impact - it might be for the NHS where it improves patient health care. In areas like psychology, languages, autism research – our research is more likely to result in societal benefits than it is to make any money."
What are your most sort of crucial challenges that you've come up against or any sort of specific industry trends that you've noticed?
"The trouble is that universities don't work how you might expect a company to work, because what companies would do is to start with some market research, identify potential gaps in the market where products and services are required. Then they’d try and analyse that situation and determine what product or service they could offer to fill those gaps. And then go back to the company research team and say “well, this is the research we've done. This is the type of product or service that we need to build, to offer to the marketplace.”
"But at universities it doesn't work that way, because what researchers do is follow their nose, and follow their interests. The resulting three-year grant output of research may - or may not - have any commercial use. And most universities work that way - Oxford, Cambridge, UCLA, Imperial. They've all got the same problem in as much as researchers are usually given the freedom to explore their subject areas free from commercial incentives. That said, there are exceptions. For example, when you have collaboration say between Imperial and GSK, they may have a research centre where there are dedicated academics working on drug discovery and development and such like. But generally, I'd say that most academics follow their interests, submit grant proposals and do research in the area that they have an interest in, but rarely does that result in a proof of concept.
"As a commercialisation team, we’ve got to try and see whether we can raise funding to try and turn those ideas and academic research into a proof of concept, because most industry isn't interested in the early stage research output. They want to see a proof of concept that they can then grab hold of and turn into a product. So that is a big problem."
Has PatSnap managed to help with those challenges?
"We tend to get snowed under with internal processes and procedures, committees and meetings. That can mean that we don't spend as much time as we’d like dealing with projects and trying to commercialise them.
"Where PatSnap helps is with getting a handle on the technology space around the invention disclosures our academics submit to us. We actually call them Innovation Disclosures because many of the ideas that are submitted to us might come out of the Cass Business School or the Department of Psychology. So it's not always what I would call an invention but it might be something that can be turned into a viable commercial offering.
"So we use PatSnap to answer commercial questions about the space that an invention is in. Who is active in this space? Are there some big companies operating in it? Are they filing more patents, or has the heat already gone out of the space. Basically we’re using it to understand what an idea might potentially be worth."
What were you using before PatSnap?
"I wouldn't say so really, I have done something very similar in the past, but I've had to do it manually. I've gone onto Espacenet to find out whether a topic is hot or not hot, or to look at its filing history. But I've had to do it manually. I did that with RFID. That was a few years ago, but when you do it with RFID you see it goes through cycles where the technology suddenly becomes super hot and everyone's filing RFID inventions. And then it cools off and goes on a down cycle. And then a few years later it picks up again.
"And obviously you're on a no-hoper if you're trying to sell in a down cycle - you're just creating a lot of work for yourself because the subject matter is just not hot enough for industry. It’s very useful to be able to achieve that with PatSnap in one step."
Are there personal drivers behind what you’re doing? Why this is so important to you?
"Well I like the idea of turning technology into products and services.
"I tend to lean towards hardware - and I don't mean computer hardware, just hardware in general -engineering hardware. And I got into it when I worked at BTG Plc for about six years, many years ago. So BTG was, and still is, a technology licensing company. It's now a pharma business but before that it used to cover everything so I used to be in electronics and IT. And that's where I learned the craft of acquiring intellectual property from research laboratories and licensing it to companies.
"So I've always been in this field of looking at how technology can make money and I quite like that space. You know intrinsically I quite like doing this sort of work."