The so-called “valley of death” loomed large on Monday morning as the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) hosted a “Brains to Business” symposium for higher education, innovation and business leaders. Coined to describe the situation when good ideas are conjured up but then fail to become commercially successful, the “valley” could even be imagined as a landscape of multiple valleys, according to one of the event’s speakers.
“In practice, when you talk about this journey from researching an idea to making money out of it, there is no set journey, and there are lots of ways for that idea to die – from getting lost in a forest to falling off a mountain or drowning in a lake,” said Professor Richard Brook, President of the Association for Independent Research and Technology Associations (AIRTO), in front of a slide depicting a suitably perilous graph of peaks and sharp troughs.
“It is harder than you might think and typically when you start looking for the market you find that it is not where you thought it was in the first place. To extend the metaphor, you will meet people coming with supplies from the opposite direction – the investors looking for new ideas and products – but you will also need translators who can speak all the languages involved, who can speak ‘academic’ and ‘industry’, or speak ‘government’ and ‘finance’.”
Looking into the valley from the vantage point of academia, Oxford University Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton outlined some of the partnerships that Oxford had entered into with major UK and international businesses, but stressed that many of these (such as the Rolls Royce University Technology Centres) had been built up over years.
“It is vital that we remember that universities up and down the country are absolutely vital to the economies of our cities and our country,” Hamilton said. “Part of that is down to a commitment to have excellence in research, but it is also a consequence of making a real long-term investment in those partnerships.”
That point was echoed by Alison Starr, Technical Manager for Strategic Partnerships at General Electric’s Aviation Systems, who said that businesses had to think carefully about the relationships they forged with universities, if they were to get optimal value out of such partnerships.
“We have had [shorter term] tactical relationships, but we soon discovered that the best way forward was to develop longer-term relationships, because you will work together better if they understand your company and how you work,” Starr said. “By all means have a tactical relationship with a particular university or research body if you need to solve a particular problem, but for ongoing work, we have certainly found that strategic partnerships work best.”
With the “valley of death” forming one of the main reasons for the establishment of the Transport Systems Catapult, the role of the TSC and other neutral “bridges” between academia and business was also examined during the Monday event.
Recounting an experience with a university that had attempted to exploit its technology using an in-house commercial team, entrepreneur Peter Jaco explained why such approaches were not always the most efficient.
“Once the commercial team got involved, they decided to set up a start-up which then took another 12 months,” Jaco recalled. “By the time they came back to me and said they were ready to commercialise the technology, it was too late. I had to tell them the market had already moved on.
“I see the Catapults as a great way to join up this whole ecosystem and explore different funding systems.”
In the Q&A session that followed the panel presentations, intellectual property concerns were identified as one of the major obstacles to successful partnerships between universities and the private sector, with one audience member wondering whether it might not be possible to devise a simple template for sharing intellectual property rights (IPR).
“I think that universities can overestimate the value of their IPR which can actually then sink possible collaborations,” argued Professor Brook. “There have been some attempts to produce standard templates for sharing IPR, such as the Lambert toolkit, but my view is that you always need to sort it out for each project individually. This is a matter that’s still being discussed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, so I think there’s quite a lot of work to be done, and it’s maybe not working as well as it could for the moment.”
Too big to fail?
Another point that came up during the closing stages of the discussion centred upon the stigma that is often attached to the failure of individual projects. It was argued, however, that long-term success depends to some extent on an ability to embrace failure, or at least a certain amount of it.
“If you are not seeing some of your ideas fail, then maybe you are not pushing your innovation hard enough,” TSC Chief Executive Officer Steve Yianni suggested. “You have to recognise that some things might not work, particular when you’re talking about innovation. You learn from it, shut those projects down and move on.
“You are obviously not going out to look for projects that fail, but my experience when I was at Network Rail was that we would have a failure rate of about 40% – but then the 60% of innovation projects that succeeded more than paid for that dropout rate.”
Agreeing with this point, Alison Starr said that people were still too scared of failure.
“There’s this movement now towards ‘fail fast, fail often’, though I prefer to think of it as ‘learn fast, learn often’, because if you learn from those failures then you still have a positive outcome,” Starr said. “With the university sector, I think it’s a shame in a way that they only publish the things they succeed at, because if you don’t also publish the failures, then other people might repeat them.”
The potential shortsightedness of “playing it safe” is also likely to form part of the discussions on Tuesday evening when the Imagine Festival continues with a “Battle of Ideas”, hosted by regular Moral Maze panellist Claire Fox. The event will examine the ambitions for future transport as imagined by the sixties generation and ask what happened to those dreams of jet-packs, flying cars and maglev taxis.
For more on the festival, please see our dedicated website www.imaginefestival.co.uk .