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How the Royal Society’s EiR programme can help to drive UK innovation

William Kilgallon

Earlier this year I attended a meeting of the latest cohort of Entrepreneurs in Residence (EiR) at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences.

I was struck by the extensive experience/ skill set of the delegates and their commitment to nurturing and directing their respective universities along the road map to commercialising academic research.

The EiRs were from a wide range of disciplines, from mathematics to psychology and from biotechnology to engineering backgrounds. The key attributes they all displayed were experience in the commercial sector, being involved in innovation systems and a desire to make an impact within their EiR programme by bridging the gap between academic research and commercialisation.

I asked myself two questions: what could be the outcome if all this talent could be integrated into a catalytic delivery machine that would accelerate commercialisation processes, further support the plan for 2.4% GDP research funding by 2027 and ultimately be part of levelling up access to funding and positive regional/community outcomes across the UK?

Secondly, rather than just addressing the present to short-term goals, why not initiate a strategic focus to address the real future needs of society over a 25+ year period: Goal 2050?

Overlaid on this, I recently attended the Royal Society meeting on the COVID-19 strategy and achievements. I was inspired by the entire work from vaccine concept to delivery. A truly remarkable display of agile cooperation and coordination across many stakeholders, combined with scientific excellence.

We now have a blueprint for change, the opportunity before us is to widen the scope and apply the learnings to improving our response to innovation in the life sciences. The EiR programme could be the catalyst and the glue to develop this pathway and ensure that young enterprises can be managed successfully to make market impact.

The Royal Society EiR programme
What is the Royal Society EiR programme, how does it work and how can universities be involved? This scheme is part of the Science, Industry and Translation programme. It is designed to provide opportunities for proven experienced industrial scientists and entrepreneurs to work with their sponsored university on bespoke, jointly agreed projects.

Practically, EiRs provide support and expert advice aimed at promoting innovation and the translation of research from bench to market. In doing so, university academics become more aware of the needs/requirements of industrial collaboration processes and the challenges faced by industry in marketing developed products and services in the real world.

The outcome of these initiatives should be that staff and students, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, grow in the confidence and understanding of business and entrepreneurship. For the EiR award holders, there is career recognition and support for their professional development within the Royal Society. Universities would benefit from positioning themselves to prospective students as innovators at the interface between academia and business, notwithstanding the kudos of gaining such an award from the Royal Society.

As an example, my own EiR programme at the University of Reading focuses on assessment of research commercialisation potential, business plan development of key projects and transformation planning to facilitate the process from bench to market. In doing so, a legacy tool kit has been developed which will act as a coaching guide for other academic groups who believe they have marketable business concepts borne from their research.

Overcoming the challenges to innovation
How should academics, industry, grant funding bodies and government act, to overcome the challenges to innovation? It’s my belief that the UK, with its wealth of upstream research expertise and capability, has an opportunity to punch above its weight in the dynamic of global innovation. In reality however, we are striving to maintain our position while struggling to overcome challenges (see figure), some self-inflicted. In the university sector there is a gaping value gap between inventive research projects and the means to carry these projects across the ‘Valley of Death’ so that they become embedded in the fertile world of true business development supported by Business Angels, Venture Capital companies or other sources of finance. This will require both infrastructure and academic incentives to bring this about.

First and foremost, universities need to address their commercial cultural awareness and look for ways to address and improve this. Not all universities need or are willing to develop applied research and rightly so; within the spectrum of university aims there should be a place for pure academic research.

To achieve a commercial positioning understanding with any large organisation requires communication, communication and further communication with all the parties concerned repeatedly over time. This can be achieved as part of a cultural framework of activities within agreed transformation management processes.

However, to improve the UK’s R&D innovation position, an overriding strategy should be developed based on future needs and technologies. Such a strategy requires independent input from industry, academia, grant funding bodies and government; no single stakeholder should dominate, however funding from all sources would be critical for success.

This could be a driver to achieve the 2.4% GDP research funding that all political parties appear to support. In this way we will be better equipped to compete with other competitive players in global innovation. This would increase the export potential of our research and would ultimately provide financial and social collateral benefits to communities in the vicinities of our universities. A levelling up strategy based on innovation.

Chart

Industry-university collaboration
Collaboration with industry is paramount and is effectively a two-way process. Universities have a strategic choice to take an active or a passive role in this process. The former is where universities position themselves as technology and upstream applied research innovators, for example, looking to attract industry collaboration to bring products and services from bench to market. The latter positioning would place the onus on industry to find appropriate university expertise which they could subcontract work to. The main downstream beneficiary in this latter scenario would be industry, while universities would only benefit from short-term project research funding.

The key to industry-university collaboration is alignment across all levels of engagement; this would include personnel in each organisation being able to communicate effectively on areas such as project aims, IP, legal, financial, contracts, deal construction and metrics of deliverables. Collaborative equitable relationships based on strengths, opportunities and joint objectives will drive process improvement and help the alignment of functions. In short, this would give projects their best chance for success. But what does success mean? How should it be measured?

Measuring success
This is a complicated issue that is often short- circuited to the number of spin-out companies that can be created per year. This is unrealistic and bears little comparison to what happens
in practice across the UK. Metrics need to be based on the stepping stones to bridging the divide between research projects and business development. These could include, for example, numbers of academics attending accelerators or incubators, patent approvals, revenue/profit generated from royalties and further grant funding attained.

A wider dimension metric could be the degree and quality of collaboration with geographically related private and public institutions and enterprise zones. This would extend the reach and creative collaboration potential of a university, creating an innovative ecosystem to accelerate and support burgeoning projects through to the phase of business development. Equally, and importantly, universities would gain from improved targeted positioning of such liaison, leading to increases in student numbers from the UK and abroad wanting to follow an applied research pathway.

University-academic deal transparency is another key issue. There is a range of deal structures across the landscape; some benefiting the founding scientists better than others. Should these be more transparent so that all stakeholders can learn from former successes and errors? Universities certainly have rights to IP, but the old adage always applies; a high percentage of nothing is less valuable than a lower percentage of something. Is there a ‘bigger picture’ gain here for all stakeholders rather than a closed parochial system?

Overcoming funding inequity
University academics spend a great deal of their time applying for grant aid to support their research. This is fundamentally a static, start-stop process that is driven by the current currency of published peer-reviewed papers. New ways need to be developed to reform this grant funding environment to support applied research and innovation within both academic and non-academic disciplines. Should there be an incentive scheme, with infrastructure, to promote applied research reaching the market, to counterbalance the academic accountability system?

Over recent years, a number of government (UKRI) funded bodies have included ‘impact’ in their formulation and delivery, however, demand well outstrips supply and, as a result, potentially innovative research is simply not funded at all. The outcome of the present system is that 80% of university research funding is allocated to a very small number of universities. Surely this alone is a clarion call for more equity of funding allocation across UK universities.

A pathway for the government to follow to achieve the 2.4% GDP target for research funding has been proposed by Lord David Willetts in a document published in 2019 by The Policy Institute at King’s College, London. The EiR programme, and its development, could be an integral part of this pathway. In doing so, it could stimulate the next tier of universities to fund their own EiR equivalent programmes so as to provide additional infrastructure to be able to encourage the government to achieve this research funding target by 2027. This would promote a levelling up of university funding across the UK and stimulate local economic benefit.

The 2050 strategic challenge
Universities engaged in life sciences research should be encouraged to collaborate with industry, sources of private finance, public funding bodies and government to create an innovative healthcare vision for 2050. By doing so, the direction of research in these areas would be more directed
to future needs. The collaboration between these stakeholders would also improve practical innovation and provide a basis for increased research funding while stimulating university entrepreneurship across the UK and harnessing the power of industry to deliver on health needs.

Join me in setting the groundwork for this important strategic challenge by connecting via my email address: w.kilgallon@cybexventures.com

William Kilgallon is the Royal Society’s Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Reading

William Kilgallon is the Royal Society’s Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Reading

11th August 2022

William Kilgallon is the Royal Society’s Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Reading

11th August 2022

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