Reflections on “Transforming translation in the UK” at the Royal Society | Part 1

Reflections on “Transforming translation in the UK” at the Royal Society | Part 1

Tekiu took part in the Royal Society’s conference on ‘Translation of research in the UK’ held on 31st of October. The conference explored current challenges surrounding translation of research into successful business outcomes. With presentations from industry, academia, and government, the conference also provided an arena to discuss how these challenges can be overcome. The conference also hosted round table discussions that brought together key stakeholders across the innovation continuum to deliberate on these key challenges and share views on good practice and ways we can foster stronger relationships within the translation of research ecosystem (read our post on highlights from these roundatables here).

As part of the opening remarks, Dr. Rupert Lewis highlighted that the UK is in the top 5-10 performing countries when it comes to translation of research. In asking “How can the UK, a small country compete with huge investments from China?” the UK government continuously evaluates its role in innovation and translation, in the market, in sector investment, and in societal challenge-solving – including the ‘valley of death’. He adds “UK science always has to be 10 years ahead – that should be our mantra”. He praised several initiatives such as the Catapults but notes that these are still in their early stages and they need to be evaluated. 

In the plenary session ‘Multiple routes to impact’, Dr. Stephen Cook, Chief Commercial Officer at BP plc argued that to engender impact industry can follow a cyclical pathway of inventions —> innovation —> renewal. Dr. Georgia Gliki, Senior Business Manager at LifeArc nuanced this cycle in a preceding talk to include ‘technology assessment and development’ and ‘IP protection’ as important steps before partnering, and ‘ongoing research’ as part of renewal

However, key components need to be in place for translation to happen successfully. For Dr Cook, these include a nurturing and healthy startup environment, support through incubators and accelerators, corporate business builders, venture capital and private equity, stable government policies, and city and university liaisons. He stressed that most importantly, what connects all these key components is the fluidity of talent circulating between key players – which cannot be underestimated. These people are connectors – those who join the dots and are able to move between sectors and disciplines. He also noted that the barrier to innovation and translation is not lack of capital; rather, it is lack of people who can pitch compelling ideas: “we also need communicators who are able to navigate across sector and discipline silos”. And in terms of government support, he noted that tax credits are a huge enabler but warned that “regulation needs clarity and above all, stability to effectively support translation of research”. 

“Successful tech transfer requires buy-in at all levels, funded and well-staffed teams, and a dedicated champion with a long-term vision”

Bringing a small industry perspective to the session, Dr. Peter Brewin, founder of Concrete Canvas, shared his thoughts on a model that can reduce barriers to SMEs engaging with Universities. A major barrier is the differences in speed and management of time in IP sharing agreements between universities and SMEs. The Lambert Toolkit is a good standard model agreement which assists academic or research institutions and industrial partners who wish to carry out research projects together. Yet, tools are not enough without people mediating the relationship between university technology transfer offices (TTOs) and industry and promoting mutual understanding – especially across borders.

Successful tech transfer requires buy-in at all levels, funded and well-staffed teams, and a dedicated champion with a long-term vision for what can be mutually achieved with a TTO – as a partner. Panelists in a later session discussed this further and highlighted that a major challenge that some SMEs face is precisely that they lack the experience, competence, longer term view, and funds to interact meaningfully with universities. At the same time, there is tremendous opportunity for universities to engage with a range of actors if they can increase their capacity and invest in a team with industry experience.

This is the approach taken by UCL. Providing a university perspective, Dr. Cecilia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise) at UCL, highlighted that translation is not just about commercialisation but about partnerships. Thus, UCL’s third mission in addition to research and teaching is “to turn knowledge into ideas”. She highlighted that at UCL students own their IP: “academics are the inventors” – and this enables UCL to build partnerships because “some problems are too big to solve alone.” With this approach, UCL Innovation and Enterprise is not a traditional technology transfer office. Her message to academia is that it needs to recognise the value of spin-out and innovation to grow. “The license deal is where the value lies”. 

In the session, ‘Industry-academia engagement’, Professor Matthew Reed, Strategy Director of the Materials Innovation Factory at the University of Liverpool discussed the principles of Industry 4.0. He highlighted the need for academia and industry to apply these principles to accelerate research, innovation and product development for economic growth. He also shared partnership-building insights from the Materials Innovation Factory. These include: actively investing in the partnership’s social capital (knowledge, attitudes, networks, values resources); create a common framework that helps partners to explore the full range of opportunities (e.g. service for access, consulting, contract discovery, or co-creation); and align around common research outcomes (specified in advance) or around common capabilities (which can reduce tensions on IP or translation). Prof. Reed also stressed that Open Access capabilities are important because they facilitate the exchange of ideas.

The first panel discussion focused on fostering a better interface between universities and industry and turning these into meaningful interactions. The panelists were Professor Lisa Roberts, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of Leeds; Kate Barnard, Engineering Programme Manager – University Research at Rolls-Royce plc; Robin Knight, Co-founder, Director at IN-PART; and Dr. John Patterson, independent researcher and advisor. 

Panelists discussed that interfacing efforts need to be bilateral – not just coming from universities, as is often framed. They also agreed that building partnerships is about building trust, which naturally takes time to build, and hence “partners need to plan to be in it for the longer term”. They highlighted that everyone has red lines and objectives – time needs to be put toward discussing these for mutual understanding. One panelist highlighted that once understood, these red lines and objectives need to be respected. 

“Everyone has red lines, objectives, and limits. Time needs to be put toward discussing these because for a partnership to work, these need to be respected”

In the second session, ‘Partnerships, creating value for both sides’, Dr. Malcom Skingle, Director and Academic Liaison for GSK, exemplified what it means to deliver impact through academic-industry collaborations. He highlighted that technology driven companies like GSK must continually innovate if they are to be successful in bringing new medicines to the clinic. Echoing Dr. Cecilia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise) at UCL, he also stressed that “no single tech-driven company, however large, has access to enough internal intellectual capacity to be truly innovative on their own. All companies must collaborate to survive”.

To foster the type of collaboration that Dr. Malcom Skingle from GSK refers to, LifeArc launched a Technology Transfer Fellowship Scheme in partnership with Imperial Innovations, Queen Mary Innovation and UCL Business (UCLB). Dr. Georgia Gliki, Senior Business Manager at LifeArc explained that the aim is to educate the next generation of TTO professionals. She stressed that their main driver is to deliver impact for society because “delivering impact is a continuing priority for Government and funders and this is reflected in national policies, most notably the inclusion of impact in the REF”. To build the experience and skills of aspiring officers, the fellowship provides direct exposure to industry and the real-life and interesting problems that industry is trying to solve. Their main target is to help translate promising science into new treatments for patients. Dr. Gliki highlighted, however, that a broader challenge to translation of research is metrics: “you get what you measure so criteria need to link to values”. For more on this topic, listen to our interview with Alan Stoten COO at Oxford University Innovation.

“Academics who are seeking to move from government funded higher education to business are often ill equipped to make the transition”

In addressing some of the key gaps in translation of research, Dr. Peter Hotten from Ellipson Ltd and Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Southampton talked about their Commercial literacy courses. The problem: “The UK economy is built around three, almost independent, silos: government (including higher education and academia), the transactional economy (such as banks and VCs) and the value-adding economy (including innovative business). Academics who are seeking to move from government funded higher education to business often have to start in the rough and tumble world of start-ups, and are often ill equipped to make the transition.” The aim of the courses is to equip academics for understanding life in start-ups and business. Each of their seminars is dedicated to an aspect of the commercial world that academics and technology transfer officers need to be aware of if they are to optimise their chances of commercial success (i.e. be able to communicate with a common language and understanding). 

Supporting translation of research through facilitated exchanges

TTOs around the globe experience similar barriers – whether it is difficult IP or contract negotiations, difference in timescales, lack of experienced staff or funding, or discrepancy in appetite for risk-taking. But in all geographies key players in the landscape of research and innovation are developing new strategies and approaches to translation of research.

Tekiu, together with Scientific Knowledge Services are organising technical visits, Discovery Trips, to bring together key players in the tech transfer and translation of research ecosystem to learn from each other’s good practices, successes and failures, policies, regulations, and initiatives that take research forward to develop new products, services, or interventions that benefit society. You can learn more about our project here

Listen to our interviews with Oxford University Innovation and the Centre for Process Innovation to hear from successful players in the UK’s innovation landscape as they share their insights and experiences in facilitating translation of research.

About the Author

Dr. Cindy Regalado is managing director of Tekiu Ltd. 

Tekiu is a research-intensive organisation dedicated to designing and delivering high-quality, tailored, international fact-finding and technical visits – Discovery Trips – as well as multi-year government programmes for international business partnering and R&D collaborations – Partnering Programmes. We organise Discovery Trips and Partnering Programmes in the fields of health and life sciences, research and innovation systems, social policy, engineering and environmental technology, smart cities, and the digital economy. Discovery Trips and Partnering Programmes enable clients to identify innovation gaps and answer crucial questions that help them thrive and respond to challenges in innovation and strategic planning, market expansion, socio-economic uncertainty, etc. On the basis of our expertise in designing and leading complex programmes, we also provide evaluation services to third parties for national and multinational programmes.

 Interested to learn more? Read part 2 here.
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