Collaboration between businesses and universities is a vital driver of Scotland’s economic prosperity.
So it’s very welcome to hear of a £4 million project called Innovation Scotland which aims to make it more straightforward for growing businesses to create and exploit collaborations with world-leading researchers at Scotland’s universities.
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is to build on its £100m investment in Innovation Centres with a further £4m to set up Innovation Scotland.
Innovation Scotland is an initiative that involves SFC, Universities Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise and will begin its work by establishing a forum to improve university-business support.
It aims to provide additional support for the university-business knowledge connection agency interface and fund a project that aims to create 90 new high-growth companies.
One aspect of all this that is sometimes overlooked, yet is integral to the successful conversion of knowledge to products, is the identification and protection of intellectual property (IP).
Intellectual property is vital to emerging technology companies. IP can not only show the world that a company is innovative, but can be an investable asset in itself. It is only by protecting intellectual property that the fantastic research that is emerging from Scotland’s universities can be used for commercial ends.
So whilst further investment is vital we would urge both the academic world and those investors looking to develop Scottish expertise not to forget the importance of intellectual property.
Protection of university intellectual property, and of patentable inventions in particular, is at best seen as a “would like” rather than a “must have”. At worst, patents can be regarded as an unwelcome diversion from academic research.
The problem is exacerbated because it takes time, effort and money to protect and to commercialise IP. Consequently, promising inventions or commercial opportunities can be missed, and their potential benefits to UK Plc can be lost.
However, as specialists in this field we often see the potential commercial benefits of IP, both to industry and to the careers of graduates involved in the work which generates it. The good news is that Scotland is already in a strong position compared with the rest of the UK.
Many of Scotland’s universities have well-established professional teams working to create their own academic-business partnerships, and the SFC has contributed funding to these activities for many years.
Also, Scottish businesses have access to a pathway of R&D funding set up by Scottish Enterprise which compares very favourably with other parts of the UK.
We commissioned a report which showed that Scotland has created more university spin-out companies than any other part of the UK over the past ten years. There are currently 800 active university spin-outs in the UK which have attracted over £1 billion investment over the past two years.
Over the past decade Scotland has led the way in terms of producing university spin-outs with 20 per cent of the UK total – ahead of London and the South-East of England with 15 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.
Scottish universities dominate the UK top ten in the creation of spin-outs in the three years 2010-2012 with Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Strathclyde and Heriot Watt rubbing shoulders with Oxford and Cambridge.
Scottish spin-out company success stories based on patented technology include i2eye Diagnostics, which was spun out of Edinburgh University in 2010 and is now forecasting growth of £4.5m in four years. There have also been notable successes in technology licensing such as the patented hepatitis-B vaccine developed at the Edinburgh University and licensed to Biogen Idec.
Many of the attorneys at Marks & Clerk have academic or industry backgrounds and so we are fully aware of the challenges involved in bringing research to market.
We understand that working with academia to develop and commercialise IP, or creating and growing spin-out companies, is a long-term game, often requiring patience and deep pockets of investors. Yet the rewards are worthwhile for those prepared to look at the bigger picture and realise the value of intellectual property from the outset.
• Dr Jeremy Bretherton is a European patent attorney at Marks & Clerk www.marks-clerk.com