Navigating the risky road to market

Taking an idea to market is tricky, but support for researchers working in academia is out there says Siraj Shaikh, professor of systems security at Coventry University and co-founder of cyber threat detection specialists CyberOwl, in an article originally published by Insider Media.  

The UK government’s recent announcement of a “knowledge exchange framework” to sit alongside the research and teaching excellence frameworks  (which was the subject of my colleague Paul Fairburn’s bloglast month) is indicative of the fact that commercialisation of university-generated intellectual property is increasingly being seen around the world as a source of economic growth.

Siraj Shaikh

Siraj Shaikh

And it is certainly true to say that while many of today’s most ubiquitous technologies were born in university labs, there is still much untapped potential that a KEF may be able to incentivise.

However, for researchers, getting their innovations to market can be a conundrum. There are many routes, whose merits vary according to the individual’s appetite for risk and their desired level of involvement.

Licensing is the most low-risk option. In most cases, this requires filing for patent protection and then finding a company to license the IP (for a fee), allowing it to make the product.

When, as with medical innovations, development costs are high or customers hard to access directly, this can be an attractive option. It certainly requires the least time and effort, and can result in the sort of success that would likely take years to achieve alone.

Yet it can take a lot of perseverance to find the right licensee, with the right customer base, manufacturing capability and understanding of the technology. You are also likely to lose significant – perhaps all – control over the invention, and may not agree with the direction the licensee takes it in (which might ultimately be to shelve it).

Industrial fellowships offer an alternative. While not a conventional route to market, I know from personal experience that these provide fantastic opportunities to work with industry, sharing knowledge that can get engineering products to market more quickly and getting the inside track on commercial practice and requirements, improving the relevance of your research and teaching. The UK’s Commons Science and Technology Committee recently identified such collaborations as a key driver of commercialisation.

But sometimes the best bet is to take the plunge and set up your own company. This was what I did in 2016. I had a novel system for early warnings on cyber attacks that was maturing to the point of commercialisation and for which there was a clear demand.

Spinning CyberOwl out of Coventry University opened several doors. It allowed it to become part of a scheme for tech start-ups run by GCHQ, the UK’s national authority on cyber security, and to run an Innovate UK-funded pilot with the defence technology company Qinetiq.

Being an entrepreneur gives you mission and drive. As the creator of the original idea, who better to realise the vision? Yet this is also the riskiest route. It puts your credibility and reputation on the line. And for those would be entrepreneurs working in academia, university leadership may view this activity as a selfish endeavour. It certainly takes up a lot of time that could be spent on core academic tasks.

Moreover, even running a spin-off doesn’t guarantee you control over how your IP is commercialised. Entrepreneurs, whatever their background, almost never truly make it by themselves. Finding the right combination of support, investors and partners is critical.

Running a spin-off also requires an enormous change in mindset. The commercial world is often opportunistic, with chaotic and disruptive leadership and a much less clear risk-reward structure than academics may be used to.

In the UK, there have been calls for a two-tier support system for academics-turned-entrepreneurs, separating licensing from business support. Imperial College London’s knowledge transfer arm, Imperial Innovations, recently launched a scheme to do just that.

Every entrepreneur and innovation is different, but it pays to look at what support is available beyond a university’s technology transfer office. In the UK, for instance, the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowships offer funding, training and mentoring to academics looking to spin out their research. The academy’s SME Leaders Award helps entrepreneurs a little further along.  I am part of that programme, and am aiming to acquire the leadership skills to scale up CyberOwl.

The important thing is that support for all the various commercialisation routes is out there. And everyone needs to be aware of that, because the more we encourage and help researchers down this unfamiliar road, the more the public will benefit from the innovations their taxes are funding.

This article is adapted from a feature entitled “How to make yourself more KEFable” published in Times Higher Education on Thursday 16 November 2017.

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