No single model for nurturing commercialised research

There is no “silver bullet” that will guarantee success in building a national eco-system for commercialised research, a study on the experience in four countries has found.

“There is no one model for all,” said Kirsten Freeman, deputy director, British Council Australia. “Each country has its own context, including political and economic, and cultural, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the country is critical.

“Silicon Valley works in California but it hasn’t worked elsewhere in the United States,” she said.

The study* by EduWorld for the British Council, which looked at four countries that are trying to commercialise the outputs of research – the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea and Brazil – was discussed at Going Global 2015, the British Council’s conference for leaders of international education on 2 June.

It concluded that developing the right eco-system is a long-term project that requires policy measures adapted to the particular supply and demand side barriers in the country.

“The fear factor is higher in some countries than others – in South Korea, for example, the impact of the technology crash in 2001 on the entrepreneurial spirit is still being felt,” Freeman said.

“The education pipeline is critical,” she added. “Innovation needs support from research and research needs support from education.”

This raised questions about whether the PhD model was fit for purpose, flexible enough. She cited the example of Taiwan having industry embedded PhDs and warned that the perception was that universities do basic research.

Although all four countries were at different stages of development, with different national conditions, there was a commonality in that they were all hoping to achieve increased productivity and economic growth through research, innovation and knowledge exchange.

“This is an evolving and relatively new area for policy, and for research on the impact of that policy. All countries are to varying degrees still feeling their way,” the study says.

Finding evidence of success of particular policy approaches was challenging, not least because the measurement of the impact of policies is complex. “It is as yet – and may always be – difficult to attribute increases in commercialisation activity to any single or multiple policy programme.”

Of the four countries studied, the UK had the most developed and diversified policy environment in relation to the commercialisation of research.

“Government policy works at all levels of the ecosystem, with strategies to motivate researchers to push their work out, micro-level efforts to address barriers on the demand side, and the establishment of various intermediary structures to support the commercialisation eco-system,” the study says.

The four countries studied

South Korea’s push to commercialise is part of a broader economic plan, the ‘creative economy’ platform, which envisions a future with a large number of successful start-up small- and medium-sized enterprises.

This would represent a significant shift away from the current heavy reliance on a handful of family-run conglomerates or ‘chaebols’.

“It will require policy changes across many dimensions, some of which are already under way,” the study says.

The Korean government is taking a directive and interventionist approach in selecting areas where commercialisation should be focused, while also taking steps to deregulate and stimulate an entrepreneurial, more risk-taking spirit, the study says.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, there is historically a hands-off approach in which the government does not try to intervene in the market dynamics to affect the demand side. There has been little funding or policy to support the development of the eco-system until recently.

Hong Kong is thought likely to position itself as a “commercialisation hub and-or base for research activities”, rather than to build local industries around the research, the study says.

The Brazilian government, on the other hand, is planning to shift the country’s reliance upon agricultural and mineral commodities and switch towards growth built on innovation and increased productivity.

There is no established eco-system in which businesses, other than the very largest companies in just a few disciplines, are able to use the country’s research output.

“Government policy on the supply side has been to compel universities to set up technology transfer offices, or TTOs, but these have not yet consistently delivered the results required,” the study says.

On the demand side the Brazilian government has offered tax and other financial breaks to stimulate SME involvement.

Policy efforts have been directed at raising the quality of research through international collaborations.

At Going Global, Sophia Chan-Combrink, head of education and society at the British Council in Hong Kong, noted that the UK spent only 1.72% on research and development, yet is the “most commercialised” of all four countries because “government policy works at all levels of the eco-system”.

The UK’s relative success is reflected in its position as second in the Global Innovation Ranking, out of 143 countries, compared to Hong Kong (10th), South Korea (16th) and Brazil (61st).

David Secher, a Life Fellow and Senior Bursar of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, who founded Praxis – now Praxis Unico – the leading UK technology transfer training organisation, said commercialisation had been around for decades but in the past 10 years there has been a huge increase in the value that universities are contributing to the economy, up last year to £3.6 billion (US$5.6 billion).

“Once you see a Porsche in the university car park, that is a sign that the culture is changing,” he said.

But Alfred Tan Keng Tiong, head of the Knowledge Transfer Office, Hong Kong Baptist University, said the culture has not changed there yet. In five years’ time he expects Hong Kong to have its own version of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework or REF, which includes an assessment of impact accounting for 20% of the evaluation. But for now the motto is still “publish or perish”.

Professor Alvaro Penteado Crosta, vice-rector of UNICAMP, Brazil, said the approach was the same in his country, but he believed there should be a good balance between published papers and applications for patents.

Professor Seung Ryul Jeong, vice-president, Office of International Affairs at Kookmin University, South Korea, said commercialisation was being strongly encouraged from this year on and the government had introduced one project in which recipients of funding were judged on the number of patents and the marketability of patents.


The study found that over the past few decades there have been developments in the understanding of what commercialisation of research means.

Supply side issues include the need to incentivise academics and institutions – specifically not based on publications or citations alone; support for basic research; encouraging an entrepreneurial mentality; providing assurance of intellectual property protection of ideas; and improving limited expertise, particularly among technology transfer or licensing offices.

On the demand side issues include the need to include SMEs to become involved in the commercialisation of research; improving the flow of information and communication, for instance on where to go to get the information or research expertise needed; providing tax breaks on private investment in R&D; providing matching funds; and assisting businesses in seeking long term external funding to develop innovation.

The governments in all four countries in the study had supported various forms of intermediary or bridging organisations. Mostly in universities these took the form of TTOs, which help academics identify and commercialise the intellectual assets.

In the UK, Innovate UK has opened Catapult Centres since 2011, which are technology and innovation centres where businesses, scientists and engineers work alongside each other on late stage R&D to turn high potential ideas into new products and services to generate growth.

In Brazil, FINEP, the Brazilian Innovation Agency under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation provides funding of BRL640 million (US$205 million) to support 400 business incubators and about 30 science parks. Brazil's incubator programme is seen as one of the most successful in Latin America, with incubator models that are bottom up or suited to indigenous needs.

The study listed a host of other factors that need to be considered in building an eco-system to encourage collaboration, but it warned that all countries had "differing historical, cultural, social and political environments" which meant that "policies that work in one environment might not necessarily be easily, if at all, replicated in another".

A key aim of all governments, though, was to try to engender an entrepreneurial culture.

“Students are naturally entrepreneurial,” David Secher said. "The function of the eco-system is to give recognition and support for student entrepreneurs. One of the best things you can do is create that community so students don't have to go far to set up. Give them office space, rent and professors nearby."

* The study, Government Policy and the Commercialisation of Research, was commissioned as part of the British Council’s Global Education Dialogue, “From Catapults to Commercialisation: How can universities use their knowledge and research more effectively”, held in March in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.