'Eureka' can be an expensive word in the UK


06-06-2001

Picture the scene.

A man in despair. After years of research, many nights spent hunched over the computer, he has invented something that will save the world/turn him into a billionaire. Except it won't.



Somebody heard him shout 'Eureka' and he just could not resist telling them what he had done. His brilliant idea is flawed only by no longer being a secret.



He is weeping and wailing, tearing out the long hair he has never had time to get cut.



He is rolling on the floor at 16 Mill Lane, new home of Cambridge University's Research Services, where the staff have just had to give him the bad news.



Fortunately, not every invention or discovery suffers this fate, and department director Dr David Secher is pushing to change the law in this country so it does not happen at all.



Research Services, working with the university's corporate liaison office, technology transfer office, university challenge fund, and Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre, is all about spinning out companies from the university's research.



It is also for firms who know there is something they want from Cambridge, but are not quite sure what it is.



'We are a 'front door',' explains Dr Secher, who arrived last year from the Cancer Research Campaign where he was director of drug development.



'We manage the relationship between the university, all the departments and people like Microsoft or Toshiba. It's terribly important to manage these relationships or it all seems so very amateur.'



Dr Secher joined when the new service was set up just over a year ago, and has had his own experience of filing a patent, against all advice. His invention, a means of purifying human interferon, went on to become the first Celltech product.



At Research Services he heads a team of 50 whose task it is to make sure the most is made of research coming out of the university.



'At the moment it's terribly fashionable to have spin-outs, and universities are being measured on the number they can produce. I think this is a mistake, often licensing can be better.'



Since 1990 Cambridge has had 33 spun-out companies, 16 in the past three years.



Last year there was De Novo, the drug discovery company and first spin-out from the pharmacology department, Paradigm, also in drug discovery, Plastic Logic, from the Cavendish Laboratory and in which Hermann Hauser and Prof Richard Friend have a hand, and Polight, a computer memory company from the chemistry department.



'This year there will be more,' says Dr Secher.



Indeed, only the other day, Dr Hauser mentioned there were 40 in the pipeline.



Dr Secher's department has seen 100 or more ideas over the past year, but only half were patentable. This means they were ideas that could be protected because they were still secret, and because it looked as if they could become a commercial proposition.



Most of the 50 per cent that got over the first hurdle needed more work, perhaps with help from the 4 million University Challenge Fund, and in a number of cases the problem is identifying a market. Cambridge University inventions can be a tad technology led.



The 50 per cent that failed that first hurdle includes the weepers and wailers: 'We do get people doing this. The unfair thing is if they were in the US they could publish their idea and then have a year of grace before having to file the patent. It doesn't happen like that outside the US.'



Dr Secher is actively trying to promote a change, lobbying in the right places, in a bid to keep his carpet dry.



And it is not just the inventive scientists and engineers who get upset if their idea is unprotectable. 130 million goes into Cambridge University research each year, and it is nice to see a bit of a commercial return.



'The new mood is to help and support this process without in any way becoming a bureaucratic hindrance, that's very important,' says Dr Secher. 'We really try not to get in the way or interfere.'



The spin-outs he is talking about are new companies that have the use of intellectual property owned by the university and at the same time, the university holds an equity stake: 'They do not include any dotcoms,' he says, a little sniffily. 'I am restricting the number to serious companies.'



At the moment the university is receiving more than 1 million a year in royalties from its spin-outs, or IP it has licensed, but its equity stakes in these companies are worth hundreds of millions of pounds.



A recent example of a likely money-spinner is a pioneering new treatment for leukaemia that has just gone on sale in the US via drug company Millennium.



But Dr Secher makes it clear his first priority is to increase the availability of technology that can better society. Putting money into the university's coffers is at number three, behind working out a fair equity split between the various parties -- the university, the department and the inventor.



'Increasingly, the university is looking to clarify its role, and we have new rules coming in which will make the inventor's share more generous.



'In the past the university's policy has not been very clear as to ownership of the intellectual property, and this has inhibited investment from outside.'



Yet, even without a change in the rules, many of the university's scientists and engineers are now millionaires, sometimes through their role in a spin-out company, but not always.



Companies like Virata, hatched in the AT&T Lab of Prof Andy Hopper and now a multi-billion dollar company, have made their founders wealthy, but not the university.



'I wouldn't say the university missed the boat there, it just did not take a major role.'



Although the first spin-out was more than 100 years ago, the university has not been of a mind to properly concern itself with commerce until recent times; and that despairing 50 per cent of those with bright ideas probably wish this was still the case.

 

The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)