Breaking out of the ivory tower

Industry is learning to work with academia, writes Roger Trapp
It is an old adage that, while Britain is reckoned to have well over its share of inventors, it is distinctly less impressive when it comes to exploiting their ideas. This, it is said, explains how British scientists are often at the centre of research programmes while few of the most successful hi-tech companies are based in the UK.

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. And, by any measure, University College London (UCL), must be among them. In recent years, academics associated with UCL have established a raft of enterprises in the medical arena.

At the heart of this activity is the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, formed in 1995 by a group of scientists who left Wellcome after its merger with Glaxo. According to Professor Ken Powell, one of those who made the move, the scientists saw an opportunity to combine in an academic environment a lot of biomedical research with drug discovery.

They chose UCL for three main reasons: its geographical location, the availability of a suitable building and support of the Provost, Sir Derek Roberts. "He had come from industry himself and understood what we were trying to do," says Professor Powell, the institute's deputy director.

This attitude is in contrast to that at many other universities. Indeed, the problem is felt to be sufficiently serious that earlier this year a conference - organised by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and sponsored by The Independent - was held to examine how inventions and ideas in academe could be pushed out into the marketplace and so help improve the productivity of British industry.

One academic attributed the difficulties of commercially exploiting ideas to "poverty of ambition", with institutions of all sorts neglecting to "go for it".

Though UCL and the businesses spawned under the aegis of the Wolfson Institute have been successful, Professor Powell acknowledges the issue. "There are stresses involved in combining an academic career with working in a company," he says. One problem - often pointed to by academics - is the conflict between doing the applied research that is required to make research discoveries into commercial opportunities and the carrying- out of the pure research that attracts the highest ratings from the Department for Education and Employment. But enough universities are seeing the advantages to devote serious attention to developing closer links with industry.

At UCL, the Wolfson Institute is later this year due to move into the former University College Hospital in Gower Street. In addition to attracting about pounds 10m of funding from medical charities and research councils, the institute has focused on building collaborations with companies such as GlaxoWellcome and Pfizer and with venture capital providers.

Accordingly, Merlin Ventures, the venture fund run by Chris Evans, has helped finance Eurogene, a company formed by Professor John Martin, a colleague Stephen Barker and Professor Seppo Yla-Herttuala of Finland on the back of their discoveries about how vascular arteries could be rejuvenated after becoming blocked.

In addition, UNIBIO, a fund headed by the former Hillsdown chief Sir Harry Solomon, has put money into Inpharmatica, a company formed around the work of a team headed by Professor Janet Thornton that has developed powerful computer software for providing "genome-based" drug discovery services, as well as Arrow Therapeutics, a company formed to develop new antibiotics with novel methods of operating.

Professor Salvador Moncada, the institute's director, believes such links will enable the establishment to attract the long-term funding needed for operating to its full capability. Indeed, the organisation's successes have led to it receiving substantial funds under the Government's University Challenge programme.

And with the group of scientists expected to expand from the current 140 to more than 200 in the near future, the institute is already growing faster than originally envisaged.

But while Professor Powell, who is himself associated with Inpharmatica and Arrow, does not claim that there are no problems, he does question what is widely perceived to be a shortage of funds for the type of venture with which he and his colleagues are involved.

What is more of a problem is obtaining the right management expertise. Echoing the views of venture capitalists that many of their investment decisions are based on the quality of the managers proposing ideas, he says it can be difficult to find people with the right academic credentials to run the operations.

But he is certain that putting people with complementary expertise together and then linking them to relevant corporations is the right route. "It's clear to me that if we're going to fund large-scale research in the future, we're going to have to go this way," he adds.