SCOTLAND’S universities are responding to demands from education secretary Mike Russell to work more closely with businesses – by giving away their inventions for free.
Nineteen higher education institutions have teamed up to launch the “Easy Access” initiative, which will allow companies to access intellectual property (IP) without having to pay licensing fees.
The scheme follows comments made by Russell in his review of post-16 education, which called on universities to make it easier for companies to take advantage of the latest research.
The initiative builds on the work already being done by University Technology (UT), a collaboration that was launched in 2004 to give firms a “one-stop shop” where they can look at available inventions, rather than shopping around each university.
Of the 120 or so gadgets currently listed on the UT website, about 20 are now available under the Easy Access IP scheme.
Technology on offer for free includes a drug testing system that can be used on athletes and drivers, developed by Heriot-Watt University.
Other inventions up for grabs include speech recognition and synthesis software written by Edinburgh University and “Terrier”, a search engine from Glasgow University that can learn users’ preferences.
Derek Waddell, director of research services and commercialisation at Edinburgh University, said that even though some of the technology was being given away free, it would still bring benefits to the public.
“Some of the technology developed by universities can be difficult to commercialise through traditional licensing agreements, often because it needs more development work to take it to market.
“The taxpayer will benefit because this technology will actually get used and because it could go on to create jobs and generate wealth in the wider economy.”
Waddell dismissed suggestions that giving some of the IP away for free could eat into licensing revenue from other technologies.
“Companies will still pay for licences because they want to get hold of technology ahead of their competitors and gain a commercial advantage,” he said.
Some of the technology being given away for free could lead to licensing agreements in the future, Waddell said, if firms pay to access additional technology that builds on the initial free IP.
“It’s a bit like apps for your smartphone – you can download some of them for free, but then you pay for certain services or to add extra elements to them,” he explained.
Garry Clark, head of policy at the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “This sounds like exactly the kind of thing we should be doing, but let’s hope that enough businesses hear about it.
“There are lots of really good projects going on to encourage businesses to use universities but often not enough is done to tell firms about them. Scotland has some world-class universities but we need to do more to tell businesses about how they can access these inventions and licences.”
Licensing agreements have been big money-spinners for Scottish universities, with Edinburgh University leading the pack with income from its genetically engineered Hepatitis B vaccine.
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