Uni sets an example to politicians on exploiting potential of science

Having been away for the past few days, I have managed to catch up with the latest economic data released by the Office for National Statistics, most notably business R&D expenditure for Wales. This shows that not only has Wales' performance hardly improved since 2004, but that the gap with the rest of the UK has actually widened: R&D expenditure in Wales grew by 2.2% as opposed to 4.4% for the UK.

 

Strangely, there was little comment on this data from the Welsh Assembly Government, which has nevertheless been responsible for ensuring that £-bn has been spent on innovation support under the Objective One programme in Wales in the past six years.

 

What on earth is going on? We seem to be squandering the opportunities and funding that we have been given because of our status as a poor nation to close the gap with other regions.

 

Instead of investing in developing more science capacity and ensuring that we protect the intellectual property that our universities generate for future exploitation, 30% of this budget was allocated to the construction of incubator buildings which the Assembly Government then spend a fortune on trying to fill.

Rather than develop the science and the technology-based businesses of the future, as suggested by Simon Gibson of Wesley Clover recently, policymakers seem happy to create architecturally impressive buildings first and then hope they can then put companies in them.

 

Given the fact that we now have a 'science policy' for Wales that is not only four years late, but has been universally derided by eminent scientists, things are probably going to get worse before they get better.

However, I was heartened by an interesting development that will probably be spectacularly successful because our civil servants and politicians have had relatively little to do with it.

 

At the beginning of this month, Cardiff University announced an agreement for the commercialisation of its research-generated intellectual property.

 

Signing a £27m deal with the specialist company Biofusion, the university has entered into a 10-year agreement giving this business the exclusive rights to commercialise all intellectual property derived from research at the university.

 

Of course, the quid pro quo in this instance is that Biofusion has ring fenced around £8m to support world-class research at Cardiff University and funding to protect any intellectual property being developed.

 

It is an interesting concept that has been long overdue in Wales, although I am surprised that institutions such as Finance Wales have not been more innovative in developing such an approach themselves, although it is worth noting that it has been a Cardiff-based company, namely financial specialist Gambit, which helped to put the deal together for the university.

 

Perhaps the critical issue here is that instead of trying to develop its own expertise in the area of technology transfer, this ensures that Cardiff can get on with being a world-class research institution while Biofusion can bring its experience to commercially exploit the technology generated in the forms of licensing agreements and, more importantly, at least five spin-out firms per annum.

 

As Dr David Grant, the vice-chancellor stated, this is an agreement based on partnership and will enable all parties, and the Welsh economy, to benefit from the successful commercialisation of world-class research.

 

Given this approach, I am sure that the other universities in Wales will consider how best to make sure that they can also protect and commercialise their intellectual property in the future and begin to ensure that they can create wealth within their economies. Given Cardiff's unique position as the leading research institution in Wales, adopting the same approach may not be the best way forward for other smaller institutions and there may be a need for more locally-based funds, supported through the new European funds, to ensure that their intellectual property is protected and exploited and that the wealth that can be created from knowledge is kept within the local areas that need it the most.

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