The recent N8 report “The Power of 8” by a group of 8 northern English Universities (Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) is wonderfully bombastic but also illustrates what is wrong with university technology transfer and how little they understand about the real world.
Despite all the big numbers – the 8 Universities have calculated that they are worth a rather precise £12.2 billion ‘to the North’ with a turnover higher than the Premier League – nobody other than the Universities seems to have benefitted.
While the N8 claim to have generated a further 51,700 FTE jobs in other sectors of the economy as a result of buying microscopes, butties and stotties, the impact on generating highly skilled jobs or tech unicorns is less impressive.
Tech unicorns in N8 land are the nine companies created since 2010 which are worth over £1m (I had to re-read that a couple of times to check that there wasn’t a typo or a few missing zeros) – which implies that the other 570 companies created are either worthless, not worth talking about or have folded.
Rather than trumpeting this the N8 should be hanging their heads in shame. According to the report, research income of £1.26 billion a year, that’s £6.3 billion over 5 years, has generated maybe 20 million pounds worth of spin out companies giving a return on investment of 0.3% over five years – even assuming that the Universities own 100% of the companies which they don’t.
It is about time that someone addressed the issue of how the UK’s fantastically wealthy universities continue to increase tuition fees, while refusing to put any effort into benefitting anyone other than themselves – and the Chinese, Korean and Japanese companies who keep a close eye on UK science and spot the commercial opportunities and patent them first. Remember graphene?
It seems from this report that the N8 Universities are simply paying lip service to commercialisation while doing the bare minimum to avoid criticism. Putting the Teletubbies in charge of commercialising research would have been equally effective.
If the best brains in the country can only manage an annual ROI from their research measured in hundredths of a percent, then something is clearly amiss. Even more worrying is that they seem to think this a cause for celebration.