College dormitories are not everyone's idea of Silicon Valley. But Michael Dell, the fellow who brought you Dell Computers, and Gerry Yang, one of the brains behind the Internet search engine, Yahoo, launched their multi-million dollar businesses from their campus bedrooms. How many nerdy students and academics in the United Kingdom might have similarly brilliant ideas, but are deterred by a feeling that they can't do it, or by a society that puts barriers in their way?
That question will be considered at an international conference today, organised by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and sponsored by The Independent. It will examine how inventions and ideas in academe can be pushed out into the marketplace and exploited for the greater good of UK plc.
This country is rated for its knowledge and inventiveness. It excelled at developing software, for example, in the early Eighties. But it has been notoriously poorer than the USA at exploiting its ideas commercially. The big IT companies are American, bestriding the world like so many giants. Although we have made great strides in recent years - and universities have been part of this - we need to do more, if we are to compete internationally.
Philip Treleaven, professor of computer science at University College London, and head of a recent Department of Trade and Industry mission to Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan and America, attributes the British problem to "poverty of ambition". He explains: "At all levels in the UK - the Government, the universities, and the funding agencies - people just aren't going for it. We're not even in a catch-up mode compared to some of these countries. If you look at the UK Internet companies, they have a village store mentality. None of them have tried to be the world leader and now the Americans are moving in and putting them out of business."
To learn some lessons from the US, a group of four university vice-chancellors and seven heads of technology transfer (the people in universities who help academics exploit their findings) travelled to Boston and California on a trip funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. They visited Harvard, MIT and Boston University on the East Coast, and the University of California at San Diego and San Francisco, as well as Stanford and the California Institute of Technology in the West. (One made a side trip to Chicago).
They returned impressed, particularly by the size of sponsored research programmes, the artfulness of the universities in keeping hold of intellectual property rights, the discipline they show in securing licence agreements for transferring patented discoveries, and the speed with which they push ideas into the marketplace, something which is vital for high-tech products.
"The main lesson we learnt from the trip was that some of the core issues are cultural rather than organisational or financial," says Howard Newby, vice chancellor of Southampton University. "It's the `can-do' mentality of American students, universities and business, coupled with their lack of fear of failure, which makes them so successful."
In America, it does not matter that an academic has failed with a business venture in the past. There is no stigma attached to failure. In fact, failure means you have learnt a lot. So a professor who has experienced flops will have no problem raising money. "In Britain you are only allowed one chance," says Professor Newby.
One of the vice chancellors, John Craven, from Portsmouth University, was impressed by the way US universities organised themselves. For example, they have clear policies on how much time academics can spend outside their normal duties, on consulting or applying their knowledge. Typically, staff have one day a week (20 per cent of their time) to pursue things from which they gain extra income.
"Staff have an incentive to do less of it in the UK because the pressure of the research assessment exercise points them away from focusing on the more applied end of research," says Craven. "There need to be greater incentives for British universities to develop new products or provide business services."
UK universities are unlikely to have the kind of explicit statements that American universities do, certainly not ones that allow so much time to be spent on money-making ventures. At Portsmouth, staff would have to buy out their time from the university.
Alan Wilson, vice chancellor of Leeds University, was similarly impressed by the one-day-a-week consultancy time. "They are expected to do that," he says. "It gets them into industry. It gives them a wider range of connections than you typically get in British universities."
Another feature of the American scene which struck the vice chancellors were the local networks of lawyers, accountants and patent agents who support academics wanting to bring their ideas into the marketplace. Often they charge no fee, instead taking a share of the business. America also has armies of business angels, willing to invest in risky ideas which may or may not succeed. Venture capitalists are much closer to the premier US higher education institutions; in fact, they flock to them like bees to a honeypot.
"The trouble in the UK is that for most universities - even for those of us in London - the network is not as strong as it should be," says Dr Jonathan Gee, chief executive of IC Innovations at Imperial College London. "That means we have to nurture our scientists, helping them to make connections with business, particularly with starting up a company, because that's not the sort of thing they've done before.
"One of the lessons from America is that we have to try to build these self-sustaining networks to feed resources into the system in the places where success is beginning to happen."
The British vice chancellors were enormously impressed by a programme called Connect, at the University of California at San Diego. In the Eighties the university played a key part in rebuilding the local economy around high-tech industry, introducing venture capitalists to new technology. That example is one of many illustrating how American universities see themselves as contributing to the community and promoting the public interest.
The British are often ignorant of the US philanthropic tradition, concentrating only on the country's businesslike behaviour. American universities do operate in a businesslike manner, but they are also very clear about what their role is compared with that of a business.
It is certainly not all gloom in Britain, however. Companies are being spun out of universities (see box right), and there are real success stories, particularly in Oxford, Cambridge and London. In addition, the Government is trying to support the university enterprise culture with its pounds 40m University Challenge, plus pounds 25m for science enterprise. As Peter Mandelson's Competitiveness White Paper put it: "The most dynamic economies have strong universities, which have creative partnerships with business."
But we have a way to go to change our attitudes. There is still too much snootiness about making money in British universities, coupled with a lack of appreciation of the importance of entrepreneurship. People who are hungry for success are looked down on. Universities are likely to forbid students from entrepreneurial activities on the grounds that it will distract them from their studies and/or open the institutions to the risk of being sued. Some vice chancellors are hoping to change the climate by giving their students entrepreneurship training. University College London has already launched a digital business course. There will need to be more courses of this kind to catch the Michael Dells and Gerry Yangs of the future.
Today's conference is at the QEII Conference Centre, London SW1. Speakers include Lord Sainsbury, minister for science. For further details, ring 0171-240 9393
THE NEW BREED OF PROFESSOR
FOR YEARS John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London, has been conducting research into how our arteries become silted up. He - along with a colleague in Finland - discovered that a particular gene could rejunevate the vessels carrying blood to and from the heart. They also figured out how to get the gene into the artery. But they needed to raise pounds 3m for clinical trials, a very large sum of money, more than they would get from grant-giving bodies.
So, Professor Martin approached a venture capital company and set up his own company called Eurogene, of which he is the chief scientific officer. The company has grown fast. Today it has around 30 staff, including consultants in London and Finland, a chief executive, and a director of clinical development. From having two patents when it began on 1 July, 1996, it now has 60 patents dealing with conditions other than cardiovascular disease - including strokes, muscle wasting in cancer, and bone and muscle loss in menopausal women.
"Because we're small, and we're both doctors and scientists, we can move very quickly," says Professor Martin. "It's very satisfying to know that my ideas are going to go into human beings and make a difference to arteriosclerosis. The problem is that academics don't understand the value of what they're inventing in the laboratory. I didn't understand it until it was suggested I might try to patent this.
"I have wasted other things in the past. Dozens of professors throughout Europe are wasting what they're inventing. This is the way of the future, and it will help to fund university research."
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