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Should Universities Drive Innovation?

Posted By Terrance Barkan, Tuesday, October 29, 2019

In an article published on 24 October 2019 titled: "Graphene Nobelist: don’t ask universities to drive innovation", Sir Konstantin Novoselov sparked a debate over who should be responsible for commercialising research discoveries.

(The article has been reproduced below for reference and is available here). 

EDITORIAL

When Sir Konstantin Novoselov talks about graphene research and development, it is worth listening. And what he says about the role of universities in the commercialization of graphene (and other innovations) echoes the views of The Graphene Council. 

There is tremendous value created within universities and of course we would not have graphene today were it not for the fundamental research that takes place at institutions like The University of Manchester.

But after trying to work with numerous Technology Transfer Offices (TTO) to help them fulfill their mandate to commercialize the intellectual property (IP) owned by their institutions, the vast majority are ill equipped to succeed. Often there is a very small staff tasked with a broad range of patents for which they may have little understanding concerning which are commercially viable. 

Looking to Universities to commercialize innovations is what could be described as a "technology push" approach; conduct research, create some functional device or material, and then push it out to see if someone will pay for it.

These efforts more often fail than not because there is a vast gap between what is seen as novel or interesting from a research perspective versus what is needed in the commercial sphere where new products must compete with existing solutions, proven processes, established markets, and all on a price that is competitive. 

One of the most notable exceptions to this paradigm is of course the University of Manchester and the ecosystem they have created through what is called "Graphene@Manchester" with the National Graphene Institute (NGI) and the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC), led by James Baker. They have squarely understood the need to engage industry in a meaningful way. 

We believe that for graphene to become successful as a commercial material, much greater focus must be applied at the end of the value chain, where the end-user (whether a consumer good or an industrial buyer) has a defined need or problem to be solved. 

Graphene is extremely well positioned to solve a very broad range of problems because of its unique properties and because it often imparts multipole benefits that in some cases break traditional tradeoffs. For example, making rubber products more durable AND giving greater traction. Making materials that are stronger AND less brittle. 

The Graphene Council is the only organization that brings together more than 25,000 materials scientists and engineers from both the academic and commercial worlds to bridge the valuable research in universities with real world commercial requirements. And we have the largest community of commercial scale graphene material producers as partners to help engineer graphene materials tuned to specific application requirements. 

Universities will continue to play a pivotal role in the development of graphene based solutions, we just should not expect them to turn them into commercial success on their own.

The better approach in our view is to educate industry sectors about what graphene offers in terms of material performance characteristics and to help them translate that into innovative and competitive products.  

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Universities should not be required to drive innovation, a Nobel prizewinning scientist has claimed, adding that governments look to higher education for technology transfer out of “desperation”.

Sir Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for his work on graphene, said that “all governments realise that innovation is the way to progress”, but that states were looking to the wrong actors to carry out this work.

“They look to their ministries…they cross out all those who are not relevant, and they are stuck with the ministry of education. So they say, ‘let our universities do the innovation’. Unfortunately our universities are fundamentally incapable of doing this, at least in their modern form,” he said.

Sir Konstantin, professor at the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials at the National University of Singapore and Langworthy professor of physics and Royal Society research professor at the University of Manchester, said that there were “many issues” but one key reason was a lack of funding.

“If you want to be successful on the patent landscape in any area – material science, computer engineering, anything – you need a package of maybe 10, 20, 100 patents. You cannot even think about financing this from the university,” he said.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, the Russian-British scientist added that research applications still tended to be developed by industry, rather than universities, but this should not be seen as a failure of the higher education sector.

“I don’t think universities need to adapt because it’s not what they should be doing. Universities are there to educate and produce research. We cannot charge universities also with business development,” he said.

“Governments do this but this is out of desperation because they don’t have anyone else to do this.”

Instead, nations should “support small- and medium-sized enterprises to push them to do more research in collaboration with the universities”, Sir Konstantin said.

“You cannot make universities responsible for innovation in countries. That’s absolutely wrong,” he continued.

The UK government’s industrial strategy, announced in 2017, includes initiatives and funding to encourage universities to enhance knowledge transfer and work with industry. Meanwhile, England’s forthcoming knowledge exchange framework will evaluate universities’ performance in areas such as commercialisation and industry collaboration and could determine the distribution of institutional funding in the future.

Vincenzo Palermo, research professor at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology and vice-director of the Graphene Flagship, a European Union research project aimed at taking graphene from laboratories into the market, said that “universities nowadays make great efforts to translate their scientific results into practical applications, and they often find success”.

But he said that “the development of a mature technology usually requires more than 20 years and massive resources to transition from the laboratories to industry”.

Sir Konstantin relocated from the UK to Singapore earlier this year to focus on research on intelligent materials. But he suggested that Brexit was also a factor.

“It’s a big world out there so I think we need to be more exposed and more connected. Brexit doesn’t help at all, unfortunately,” he said. “I think [Brexit] will have quite a serious impact and not only because of funding, also in terms of attracting talent to this country.”

However, he rejected the commonly held view that while the UK had invented graphene, it was behind in the race to profit from its many applications.

“I don’t think we have failed. Not at all. I think if anything we’re punching above our weight on this,” he said.

“In the UK we are doing quite well in terms of the number of start-ups and small companies working with graphene…Some of our start-ups from the University of Manchester now have production across the globe.”

Maria Iliut, founder and chief executive of Grafine, a spinout from Manchester, agreed that “universities shouldn’t be converted into the development arm of companies” but said universities were best placed to do applied research, which can “overlap with what some people might call development”.

She said that the UK has “done quite well” in taking graphene research towards commercialisation, adding that “the only graphene consumer product that is available worldwide, the inov-8 graphene-enhanced shoes, were developed by me and my colleagues in the UK”.

But she said that “other countries will very easily catch up and surpass us if we don’t continue to fund both fundamental research and provide strong support for translation of research into the commercial realm”.

Dame Nancy Rothwell, Manchester’s president, said that while universities “are indeed focussed on research and education…there are many examples of successful innovation including at the University of Manchester”.

“There will always be a need for collaboration between industry and academia. In fact we are working closely with [Sir Konstantin] and business leaders to develop an exciting new model to realise the potential commercial opportunities for Graphene and other two dimensional materials,” Dame Nancy said.

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