Turning research into real-world solutionsOctober 2016
Bianca Grizhar discusses how the Easy Access IP programme is helping overcome barriers to commercialising research.
In a bid to turn more university-led research into practical, real-world solutions, Victoria University of Wellington is offering the region’s businesses simple, free access to selected university-developed technologies.
The international initiative, known as Easy Access IP, was introduced into New Zealand by Viclink (Victoria’s technology transfer office) earlier this year to help break down barriers which prevent the commercial potential of some of its research developments being realised.
“We wanted to make it easier for local companies to work with Victoria, so they can translate university knowledge into products and services that will ultimately benefit the community and the economy,” says Bianca Grizhar, Viclink’s Open Innovations manager.
The barriers to commercialisation
“Internationally, 80 per cent of the inventions and intellectual property developed at universities never find their way into productive use,” says Grizhar. “Often, that’s because the research is at a very early stage of development and requires significant investment to fully realise any commercial or social value. Universities only have limited resources to fully develop all of their IP, so have to focus on the technologies that meet their strategic goals, and which fit with their available resources.”
Added to that, she says, the typical technology transfer and licensing process is often complicated, costly and drawn out, involving various stages of funding and patent applications, and complex legal transfer agreements.
“Small companies and startups usually lack the capital, legal knowledge and experience to negotiate these complexities,” Grizhar explains. “Also, the traditional process is not well suited to development in the fast-paced digital and design sectors where speed and flexibility is crucial to success, and it can prevent students and researchers from continuing to develop their research commercially after they graduate.”
Another major barrier is a lack of wider community awareness about potential inventions or technologies in the universities. Grizhar says that in comparison with other nationalities “Kiwis don’t tend to talk about their successes or the cool things they are working on, which means industry and investors are often unaware of potentially game-changing solutions being developed right here.”
She says such obstacles equate to missed opportunities on many levels, as potentially beneficial innovations for society or local businesses may fall by the wayside and never have the impact they should.
“Easy Access IP gives us a way to remove those barriers and open up otherwise-unrealised opportunities to industry,” says Grizhar. “It allows us
to assign IP to a business with a simple one-page, royalty-free licence agreement. The licensees can then develop that IP into products and services as they see fit.
“It’s also a big benefit for Victoria’s researchers, who will have more opportunities to showcase their research and create partnerships with industry – which could lead to more research funding and scholarships
In return for the free IP, licensees agree to give the university continued access for research purposes, to report annually on progress and, if they have not developed a technology after three years, that ownership will revert back to the university so that somebody else may do so.
Making knowledge affordable and accessible
By making university knowledge affordable and accessible to businesses and other organisations, Viclink aims to create collaborative, mutually beneficial partnerships that will ultimately lead to more research, and more dissemination of university knowledge.
“Universities exist to create and disseminate knowledge by publishing, so people can see our new knowledge and hopefully do something with it,” says Kevin Cullen, CEO of NewSouth Innovations at the University of New South Wales, and creator of the Easy Access IP programme adopted by Viclink.
“Universities disseminate knowledge by teaching, so students can take our knowledge and hopefully do something with it. Can you see where this is going?
“Universities disseminate knowledge through technology transfer so companies and other research users can take our knowledge and do something useful with it.
“And there’s the key thing. It’s the companies and others who do something with our knowledge – they create products, services, jobs and real impact. So it should be a partnership, not a competition.
“Don’t get me wrong, when a university has commercially valuable IP it should get a fair share of the returns, but for a lot of IP there is limited value until it’s put into use. Companies are the ones who can do that and we should be encouraging them and helping them to do so, because our research, our relevance and our reputation all gain from it.”
Grizhar agrees. “It’s only through positive partnerships that universities and companies both benefit from technology transfer. We see the Easy Access IP programme as the start of ‘partnerships without complications’, to open up ongoing opportunities for collaboration and dialogue that will get IP out there and put to use. That way everyone wins.”
Viclink will continue to generate and protect IP that is commercially mature or capable of further development before licensing it at commercial rates. “We already have a great record at developing innovative technology, with notable spin-out successes such as Avalia, AuramerBio, Magritek and Boutiq playing a crucial role in benefiting the local economy – and that’s not about to change,” says Grizhar.
“Easy Access IP complements the university’s existing commercialisation efforts, working alongside traditional research translation. It is not a replacement for the other routes we use to commercialise university IP, nor is it aimed at ‘clearing out’ IP that we have no interest in commercialising.
“With Easy Access IP, we are simply acknowledging that we have limited capacity to exploit all valuable IP to its highest potential, and therefore wish to open up some of our portfolio so that others can develop it further to benefit us all.”
A healthy start
Grizhar says that the technologies in Viclink’s Easy Access IP portfolio are all based on innovative research, have identified commercial potential, and potentially link industry to Victoria’s researchers for further research and development.
One such technology was recently adopted with great success by Ropata Medical Centre in Lower Hutt. As one of the Wellington region’s largest medical centres, with 19,450 registered patients averaging 6,500 consultations a month, the centre was looking for a way to streamline patient check-in.
Practice manager Adrian Tucker knew of an automated patient check-in system developed by Victoria for the university’s Student Health Centre, which had also worked successfully in a Gisborne practice.
“I contacted Viclink to see if we could purchase or licence the system. To be honest, I had my doubts, and thought that it might be too expensive or difficult,” says Tucker.
“In fact, the opposite was true. I met with Grizhar, who talked to me about the Easy Access IP programme. I wrote a statement of intent outlining how we planned to use the software, and Grizhar prepared the contract. We had the software within a week.”
Leading the way
Chair of the Viclink board and Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Kate McGrath says this new commercialisation approach embeds the university in the international technology sector.
“As a global-civic university, and with its excellence in research, Victoria has a leading role to play in expanding New Zealand’s innovation ecosystem.”
Viclink will initially focus on implementing the Easy Access IP programme in the schools of architecture and design, and engineering and computer science. “We want to open up the highly valuable research and development resources in these key schools to support local businesses in these sectors,” says Grizhar. “We’re excited to be among the first universities in the world to use the Easy Access IP approach for digital technology and open source projects.”
The importance of being open
As the world becomes more digitised, open source philosophies are being adopted across major industries as they look for ways to drive business forward.
Open source is the ability to take IP and make it broadly available so people can look at it, develop it, and incorporate it into their own solutions.
“To make the world a better place relies on innovation,” says Grizhar, “and open source collaboration is one of the key ingredients to achieving this. The ability to invite the entire world to continuously improve a product or technology is happening before our eyes, and has already resulted in some of the world’s most groundbreaking innovations in the areas of technology, medicine and engineering.
“The beauty of Easy Access IP is that we are part of an international network of 27 research organisations who have also adopted the programme, so we have access to a huge ecosystem of innovators who are happy to share knowledge.”
Without open source, many of today’s top technology initiatives − from cloud computing to big data and mobile − would simply not exist as we know them. Electric car manufacturer Tesla recently made the bold step of making its patents available for others (including its competitors) to use ‘in good faith’, in recognition of the fact that it could be a massive boost for the automotive industry and the environment, as the broader adoption of electric vehicles could slash emissions.
“As the world changes and becomes more open, we need to change with it – and Easy Access IP gives us the opportunity to do exactly that,” concludes Grizhar.
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