Commercialisation and the Welsh university sector

In July 2007, a report was published that had the potential to turn around the Welsh economy.

The Report of the independent Task and Finish Group on Commercialisation in Wales conducted a wide-ranging review into how research within higher education could be successfully transferred into the market place.

Chaired by Simon Gibson – the chief executive of Wesley Clover – it concluded that Welsh universities were sitting on a “gold mine” of intellectual property that could be commercialised, thus bringing enormous benefits to the economy of Wales.

Some of the actions suggested by the report included an All-Wales commercialisation strategy that provides a clear policy framework for all Welsh public-funded agencies; creating accredited educational courses on the rudiments of commercialisation and business-building aimed at students; and the establishment of a series of advisory panels made up of people drawn from the international business community who would apply their expertise to help academics identify ideas with strong commercial prospects and realise the wealth potential of those ideas.

Yet 20 months later, despite plenty of the usual rhetoric from politicians and policymakers, the recommendations of the report have yet to be implemented.

Of course, other parts of the world have already created a real dynamism between academia and industry and have successfully harnessed the entrepreneurial impact that universities can have on their local economies.

One of these areas is Route 128 in Massachusetts, USA, which I visited at the end of January while undertaking a course at MIT, one of the world’s leading research universities.

Earlier this week, I was sent the latest detailed survey of the potential economic impact of the research developed at MIT, which has been driven largely by the creation of a culture that makes entrepreneurship common within a range of faculties.

And what is the consequence of such a culture?

The 25,800 currently active companies founded by MIT alumni employ about 3.3 million people and generate annual world sales of £1.5 trillion, producing the equivalent of the 11th-largest economy in the world.

More importantly, the types of firms created from universities are primarily knowledge-based companies that employ more higher- skilled as well as higher-paid employees, thus maximising the economic impact on a region. They also then create a massive multiplier or spill-over effect for other businesses in the region, such as utilities, services and retailers,.

Of course, I am not saying that Wales can, in any way, emulate the success of MIT, but the results from the survey show what type of impact the successful commercialisation of university research can have on a local economy.

While we may currently lack the innovation infrastructure, such as a strong cluster of existing entrepreneurs, venture capital and professional services, the report suggests that there are a number of quality of life factors which are critical in attracting the skilled professionals who help set up the core of hi-tech start-ups.

These include access to a strong educational system, cultural facilities, open space and good transportation. While the transport system in Wales still leaves much to be desired, one could argue we already have a strong foundation in many of the other factors.

With the Welsh economy facing serious challenges over the next 12-18 months, it is critical we put the building blocks into place that can drag us out of the recession quickly.

As Simon Gibson said, small changes to the university culture regarding commercialisation could make a huge difference.

However, we cannot wait another 20 months for this to happen and I urge the Assembly Government and universities to implement the recommendations of the Gibson review immediately so we can get on with making the most of world-class research for the benefit of the Welsh nation.

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