Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE)
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International competitiveness of UK university technology transfer practice

A report from a group of university experts (Note 1) has presented evidence confirming the international competitiveness of UK university technology transfer practice.

The group, chaired by Professor Trevor McMillan, the Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, suggests areas where Government, universities, the private sector and other entrepreneurial partners could work together on technology transfer topics to enhance the UK as a knowledge economy. This will involve consideration of our world-class research base, technology sector specialisation (Note 2), and a sense of place on both national and sub-national scales (Note 3).

The McMillan group (Note 4) concludes that UK universities operate at world-class standards of practice in technology transfer. The UK has universities that are recognised worldwide as leading-edge performers (Note 5), and has a strong system-wide community of professional practice, PraxisUnico (Note 6).

The report’s recommendations are:

  • UK national policy development needs to involve university leaders who play critical roles in setting the overall strategic direction that shapes university technology transfer.
  • National funders and policy-makers should improve evidence and debates on the critical issues that are important to successful technology transfer, such as around ecosystems, place and economic growth. Universities can play a key part in this. The UK needs to focus on its areas of strength rather than adopt policies from other countries.
  • The greater focus on research impact in the UK in the Research Excellence Framework has helped provide a supportive environment for academic entrepreneurship. Academic and student entrepreneurs are very diverse, focusing on different technologies and with different interests and aptitudes. Universities need to do more to demonstrate that they support these diverse talents effectively.
  • PraxisUnico, a national professional association focused on technology transfer, should be supported to develop further so that it can provide more support for less experienced or smaller-scale technology transfer units, and enable it to further its American and other overseas and private sector links. PraxisUnico should also be supported by national stakeholders and funders to highlight the differentiation needed in technology transfer policy and practice for different technology sectors.

The review was supported by HEFCE as part of a programme to deliver a knowledge exchange (KE) framework (Note 7). The framework focuses on good practice in all forms of university-business and wider links, and is a priority for the UK Government (Note 8).

The group involved university leadership, innovation experts and technology transfer professionals in the review. It compiled extensive evidence on the topic, including on international comparisons and US experience. The group hosted visits from heads of technology transfer of Stanford and MIT universities, Dr Katharine Ku and Dr Lita Nelsen, who stressed that being embedded in vibrant private sector ecosystems (Silicon Valley and Kendall Square) made them atypical even in the US (Note 9).

The report stresses that different universities play to different strengths in university-business links. Many UK universities, as in the US system, will do little or no technology transfer because it does not fit with their academic capabilities or technology strengths. The KE framework for English universities should support universities to excel in their different contributions to economic growth and societal prosperity, and national policy should not drive conformity.

Professor Trevor McMillan, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University and chair of the review group, said:

Our review has highlighted some of the strengths in the UK system but also identified areas for improvement. It is clear that university leadership matters in technology transfer, both in setting the approach and tone within universities but also in the national push for development. Different leaders define different missions for their universities, reflecting different institutional capabilities. This will make simple comparisons between universities that are based on single outputs, (for example, number of spin-out companies formed) difficult, meaningless and negatively misleading. University vice-chancellors in the UK are fully committed to delivering on the Government’s economic priorities, but we will each contribute differently.’

David Sweeney, HEFCE Director (Research, Education and Knowledge Exchange), commented:

The McMillan group review has provided an important contribution to the HEFCE programme on the KE framework. It shows that KE practice is highly technical and complex, and the KE framework needs to capture this. HEFCE seeks to support institutions, their leaders, academics and professional staffs in making their appropriate economic and societal contributions, through the KE framework and through policies and funding such as Higher Education Innovation Funding and the Research Excellence Framework.’

Tony Raven, Chief Executive of Cambridge Enterprise and member of the review group, said:

I am pleased that the report gives some of the flavour of the complex, varied and sometimes difficult jobs done by university technology transfer staff. Successful technology transfer practice needs to be underpinned by significant professional knowledge, skills and competencies. We have a strong, collaborative and collegiate community of practice in technology transfer in PraxisUnico, and we want to do more as practitioners to contribute to UK economic success. It is also important that the review report describes how technology transfer professionals strive to support their universities, senior managers and academics and students.’


  1. Read the report: ‘University Knowledge Exchange (KE) Framework: good practice in technology transfer. Report to the UK higher education sector and HEFCE by the McMillan group’.
  2. The McMillan report provides examples of differentiation in policies for technology transfer in different technology sectors – engineering hardware, human therapeutics and engineering software (paragraphs 52-58 of the report).
  3. The review references a number of sources that describe entrepreneurial ecosystems:

Dr R Graham ‘Creating university-based entrepreneurial eco-systems: evidence from emerging world leaders’ MIT Skoltech Initiative, 2014

Imperial West as a world-leading Innovation District’, Imperial College, 2014.

  1. The membership of the McMillan group was:

Professor Trevor McMillan, Vice-Chancellor, Keele University (Chair)

Alan Aubrey, Chief Executive Officer, IP Group plc

Professor Steve Beaumont, Vice Principal Emeritus, Glasgow University (suggested by Royal Academy of Engineering)

Dr Dave Bembo, Deputy Director and Head of Research Development, Research and Innovation Services, Cardiff University

Tomas Coates-Ulrichsen, Research Fellow, Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI), University of Cambridge

Professor David Gann, Vice-Provost (Development and Innovation), Imperial College

Dr Sarah Jackson, Director of Research, Partnerships and Innovation, University of Liverpool

Dr Angela Miller, Senior Business Consultant, Wellcome Trust (previously St Georges Medical School)

Dr Sue O’Hare, PraxisUnico, ex-Chair (previously City and London Metropolitan Universities)

Dr Tony Raven, Chief Executive, Cambridge Enterprise, University of Cambridge

Professor Tom Stephenson, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation, Cranfield University

David Sweeney, HEFCE Director (Research, Education and Knowledge Exchange)

Dr Joanne Whittaker, Head of Intellectual Property Commercialisation, Loughborough University

Greg Wade, Higher Education Policy Adviser, Universities UK (observer)

Alice Frost and Rachel Tyrrell, HEFCE (secretaries)

  1. The 2014 MIT Skoltech report (Note 3) compares universities worldwide based on opinion of global innovation experts.
  2. PraxisUnico www.praxisunico.org.uk/.
  3. The KE framework aims to improve university performance in all forms of KE, through providing web resources for benchmarking and good practice. HEFCE uses the term knowledge exchange or KE as shorthand for the multiple interactions between higher education institutions and businesses, public services, charities and communities to create societal and economic benefit. KE includes activities such as joint research and development projects, consultancy and training, as well as technology transfer (spinning out companies and licensing intellectual property).
  4. The Government said in the 2016 HE White Paper:
Government protection of research funding has helped HEFCE to maintain Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) which underpins knowledge exchange and tech transfer capabilities. HEFCE is continuing to develop and implement a framework to benchmark KE performance across the HE sector, encouraging the sharing of innovation and entrepreneurial expertise, and supporting the professionalization of knowledge exchange skills.’ (Success as a Knowledge Economy, BIS, May 2016).
  1. Dr Katharine Ku and Dr Lita Nelson provided a follow-up paper to their visits to summarise their advice, ‘Are US university spin-out processes really better than those of UK universities?’, available at www.hefce.ac.uk/kess/goodpractice/Resources/.


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