Universities are rising to the innovation challenge – Yann Robin

Scottish institutions see intellectual property and patents as key to their commercial vision, says Yann Robin
Yann Robin is a Chartered (UK) and European patent attorney, Marks & ClerkYann Robin is a Chartered (UK) and European patent attorney, Marks & Clerk
Yann Robin is a Chartered (UK) and European patent attorney, Marks & Clerk

Recent data released from the UK Government has highlighted the importance of the role of innovation and technology by Scottish universities.

In a report issued by the UK Patent Office, the findings show a steady increase in patent filing by UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) during the past 20 years.

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What’s more, five of the top 20 universities to file patents were Scottish – the Universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews, Dundee, Glasgow and Strathclyde.

With the UK Government aiming to promote innovation as part of its Industrial Strategy, HEIs were identified as a key player in achieving that target. This new report examines the trends in Intellectual Property (IP) filings by HEIs, including their behaviours regarding collaboration, technology sectors, and spin-out companies.

The data shows that patent filing made by UK HEIs has almost doubled during the past 20 years, from fewer than 1,100 in 1999 to almost 2,200 in 2018.

Most HEIs have favoured patents as an important form of investment, as 73 per cent of the UK’s 165 HEIs have had at least one patent application published during that period – highlighting the importance that UK universities place on IP in their current development strategies.

The report also indicates a steady rise in the number of spin-out businesses from UK universities between 2000 and 2016 from 16 spin-outs incorporated in 1999, to 99 being incorporated in 2016, with the most prominent areas being pharmaceuticals and biotech companies.

In line with our own observations at Marks & Clerk, most, if not all, Scottish universities have a strong commercial focus in relation to IP from a very early stage.

Rather than filing for IP purely on academic merit and seeking to commercialise it later, many universities now hold the commercial potential of an innovation at the very core of any decision-making process as to whether or not to fund IP protection for that innovation.

While the number of spin-outs is not necessarily an accurate measurement of success, they are generally viewed as an effective way of commercialising a university’s IP and therefore represent a solid indicator of the commercial output generated by universities.

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The increasing number of spin-outs reflects today’s commercial vision by HEIs from the very early stages of their innovation process.

Another interesting parameter included in the report is the number of patents having one or more applicants in addition to a UK HEI.

The data shows a gradual increase in the number of patents filed by UK HEIs with co-applicants, with an average of 69 per cent of all published applications from UK HEIs having a co-applicant.

Of those co-applicants, more than 90 per cent are other UK HEIs, but other significant co-applicants include private sector businesses and non-UK HEIs (especially US-based).

This trend is no surprise. Working with various Scottish universities over the past few years, we have been observing increased instances where innovation and resulting IP involves multiple parties and collaboration not only with other universities but also the private sector.

Two of the top ten spin-outs according to the number of patent applications published between 1999 to 2018 originate from the University of Aberdeen, highlighting Scotland’s role within the UK’s spin-out success.

Yann Robin is a Chartered (UK) and European patent attorney, Marks & Clerk