‘University spinouts deliver just 3% of national innovation’

Prof Andrew Livingston, from Queen Mary University of London, argues that changing research culture can help universities deliver more innovation

Innovation: Is there a more overused word in the modern corporate vocabulary? Companies covet it; governments are obsessed with it. And universities? We’re right in the thick of it.

If higher education research is in the business of anything, it’s the business of innovation – but despite producing the lion’s share of research in the UK, university spinouts deliver just 3% of national innovation. As a sector, that data point should be cause for some concern and it’s my belief that there’s one thing, above all, we can do to make the difference: put more focus on culture.

When we talk about innovation, often it’s in terms of the spark of inspiration – that transformative “light bulb moment” when our perspective on the world changes. The reality, of course, is more prosaic. It requires rigour, structure and committing to a culture where the real-world application of research is weighted alongside the discovery of new knowledge that we can publish in academic journals.

Whereas research maybe shows that something can work some of the time, innovation often involves making it work every time, which requires tenacity, reproducibility and attention to tiny details, and these attributes need to be nurtured. That doesn’t have to mean “turning every idea into invoices”. Commercial outcomes are important, but university research must be a catalyst for meaningful change, whether the impact is social, environmental or economic.

A strong culture also creates its own virtuous circle, where a richer, more diverse academic environment attracts more and better minds into research careers, which in turn makes true innovation more likely.

If the case for building a culture of innovation is clear – boosting a university’s efficacy, morale, income and reputation – the question becomes: how do we achieve this? Drawing on the experience of Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), there are three places I would start.

Research and real-world impact

Mentality shifts. Difficult to achieve, but critical to producing genuine innovation in universities.

They begin with encouragement. Leaders should inspire academics to think about the wider application of their research at the outset. How and why does it matter to the wider world? Could it be licenced as a technology or a company? These questions can be asked at the beginning of the process as well as at the end. Not all research can or should be turned into innovation, but chance favours the prepared mind!

Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs), funding routes which prioritise impact and agility, are important here. They help researchers identify real-world beneficiaries at the beginning of projects. They turn academic proposals into commercially viable propositions, bridging the gap between companies, venture capital and organisations such as Innovate UK. They strengthen links between academics and entrepreneurs and facilitate knowledge exchanges.

An impact-focused mentality can produce spinouts – companies emerging from higher education faculties. These are often the most dynamic, forward-thinking businesses. Take Dragonfly AI as an example. It’s a visual analytics platform that’s completely transformed the way marketing campaigns run through neuroscience-based AI. It’s working with huge companies such as GSK, Mitsubishi and Mars, reinventing the way they communicate with customers.

It’s not just mentality shifts. Dragonflies are produced by risk-taking and incentivisation. Yet only a third of universities have built impact and innovation into the career development process, according to the European University Association.
A more holistic approach to assessing performance is needed. Greater emphasis should be placed on the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts of their activities, so researchers feel motivated to deliver real-world change.

Prioritising incentivisation will lead to a more vibrant research culture in which academics are always thinking about impact and striving to achieve it.

Collaborating with business

“Strong partnerships between universities and businesses.” A key part of Levelling Up the country, according to the UK government’s Build Back Better plan.

It’s worrying, then, that few companies cite universities as highly important centres for innovation knowledge, according to a report by the National Centre for Universities and Businesses (NCUB). The main reason given was a lack of information from universities about how the parties can work together and what the benefits might be.

Universities need to get on the front foot. They need to communicate proactively their research and commercial ambitions to the business community. Part of this should be about building long-term partnerships with corporations, leading to higher quality research and innovation, as well as developmental benefits for academic staff.

These relationships give academics an opportunity to put research into practice and capitalise on the private company’s resources and facilities. Frontline commercial issues can also inspire interesting new research questions and encourage academics to think about their work in a real-world business context.

There’s no better example than Covid-19 in demonstrating what can be achieved. Industry/university collaborations such as Oxford/AstraZeneca have produced the vaccines that have allowed us to exit national lockdowns and resume normal life.

Informal support is important, too. Entrepreneurs in Residence schemes involve academics who’ve successfully launched spinouts or start-ups promoting entrepreneurship across an institution. At QMUL, we recently appointed Prof Josh Reiss, co-founder of the intelligent music mastering company, LANDR, and Everard Mascarenas, to support innovation.

We’re already seeing a major impact on our researchers, who are benefitting from support and guidance on commercialising their activities.

Engaging with local people

Innovation is about real-world research application. And there’s nothing more “real world” than the community surrounding a university.

Frequent engagement with local people is vital to a healthy culture in which research and innovation can thrive. The visibility of community issues can act as a source of inspiration for university researchers.

Disparities in health outcomes across disadvantaged socio-economic and ethnic groups drove QMUL to launch the Genes and Health study.

This is designed to improve the representation of minority groups within health data sets and better understand how genes influence disease, enabling researchers to identify better treatments to cure or help prevent them. It’s a standout example of how exposure to local issues can prompt research innovation and deliver positive change.

Engagement with the community can be beneficial in other ways. Positive relationships with local businesses and regional political leaders can facilitate knowledge sharing and help give prominence and credibility to university research.

The right switch

Universities are increasingly assessed on innovation.

But this isn’t just about league tables. It’s about launching the next wave of technology businesses, solving societal problems, building a more dynamic, prosperous national economy and changing lives for the better.

For that to happen, there has to be a focus on culture. The right mentality, business collaboration and community engagement are all vital in ensuring universities are centres of constant inventiveness, creativity and energy.

This will lead to institutional benefits, too – attracting more people into research careers, uncovering revenue streams and building reputational strength with policymakers.

“Light bulb moments” happen only with the right switch. With the appropriate rigour, structure and commitment, we can ensure this is in place and we deliver them more frequently.

Prof Andrew Livingston is vice-principal for research and innovation at Queen Mary University of London


Read more: ‘I would encourage every researcher to get to know their commercialisation office’

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