EU patent process ‘too cumbersome’

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Europe needs to get professional people to work on knowledge transfer at universities, ease the patent system and get member states and university senior managers to understand that supporting knowledge transfer is part of their role, argues Gillian McFadzean of ProTon Europe.

Gillian McFadzean is the chairman of the board of 

ProTon Europe

 – the largest international organisation for knowledge transfer in Europe representing over 600 universities and their knowledge transfer offices (KTOs). 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Why is Europe not good at knowledge transfer? 

Because we create our own complexities. We shoot ourselves in the foot with small technical points that everybody says are crucial for their national identities. It is about small differences in the patent regimes across countries so that when a company files a patent in one country, it then has to use slightly different expertise to file it in another European country. These small technical things create opportunity costs and make the whole process more expensive. In the United States you are dealing with one system – you don’t have translation costs or small technical points. 

Just how expensive can translation costs be? 

You need to translate a technical document to the language of all countries you want to file the patent in, so it is extremely expensive. You are possibly looking at costs of €3,000-5,000 per language. Suddenly you could have a €100,000 translation cost for your patent. This is crazy – particularly when we have an agreement on the major languages that are being used, so why not just require the patent to be in one of those. 

So, is knowledge transfer only about patents? 

No. With patents the knowledge transfer is very linear – you file a new patent and somebody takes out the licence or creates, for example, a new company from that. Knowledge transfer is a contact sport. It is about interaction between people – the industry, the research base and those who are creating the knowledge – and can take many forms. For universities the greatest knowledge transfer vehicle is always the well-trained graduates who take their university knowledge and go and work in companies. 

The best way in Europe to take technologies and ideas after those people have graduated is to interact with industry within research projects. We are much better at doing that than they are in the US. In the US, industrial funding for research is 7%. In the UK, the average is about 25% and across Europe 21-22% of the funding comes from the industry. So in Europe you’ve got much more people in industry talking to the academic world about research projects and research problems they want to create projects around and there are exchanges of personnel, skills, expertise and knowledge. 

So why then do we hear all the time that there is no business-academia gap in the United States but that there is one in Europe? 

Because it is not true. 

So what is the problem in Europe? The knowledge transfer? 

In the US, they are very quickly starting to create a new role in the universities for people to go out and talk to the industry about research funding. And that is where Europe has an advantage at the moment.  We need to retain that and get better at doing it. We need to put in place intermediaries who have the time and the skills to go to industry and say: “We have this research in our university, it should be of interest to your company – can you take a few moments to look at what we are doing?” It does not waste industry’s time, because the intermediary is a professional, knows what he’s doing and can translate the research into industry terms and bring two sciences together. 

I can think of an example at the university of Wisconsin, which has a huge licensing portfolio but very little industry funding. The university is investing $100,000 a year in a very small team that simply goes out and talks to local industry to create links and present its university’s research to industry, in the hope that industry will then start funding research at the university. 

In the US, the industry-academia link is said to be too strong and there are said to be some problems with the IPR as universities are getting greedy. 

We are better at research funding in Europe, but I think there is a problem specifically linked to licence deals. The problem can also sometimes apply to research funding when the both sides over-negotiate instead of looking at something and saying that it would be good if we did this and reached a conclusion. Too often negotiations are driven by money rather than by getting the technology out there. This is the case in Europe and to some extent in the US as well. 

Get the technology out there, get it working and do something for the public good. The universities are not going to make money doing knowledge transfer. Therefore, as in the United States, it is for the public benefit and that’s why member states need to start recognising that they have a role in supporting and developing knowledge transfer for the public and economic benefit of their countries. 

However, you heavily emphasise the capacity of universities to file patents. So why is the community patent too little, too late? And why should Europe quickly adopt the European Patent Convention (EPC) instead? 

The EPC makes it easier for the universities to patent right away and they can see the advantages immediately. At the moment, when a university is looking at taking out a patent the process is very cumbersome, costs are huge and it takes a long time. We need a faster, slicker process because there are inventions out there in the academic community that are disclosed to publication and that could be patented or perhaps are not disclosed to publication and just nothing happens with them. 

The next Microsoft could be in Europe but it may be that the academy or the university that they are working in is so disheartened by the complexity of our patent system that nobody acts. So it is about getting the technology out there in the market place faster. If we want to grow small high-tech companies we do need to look at the fiscal and legislative reasons for why they are not growing as fast as they might. And one of the reasons is that they cannot patent as easily as they can in the United States. 

You can look at the US system and there are some good things there, but we do not want to copy the US completely either, because there are things in their system that were appropriate 30 years ago that are not appropriate in Europe, such as the protectionism established under the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. It was perfect for the US because it requires you to manufacture in the US. Now all the big companies are manufacturing outside the US and every time they take a license on something that is federally funded they have to get a formal waiver of this requirement to manufacture outside the US – thus ask for permission to ignore the requirement. They still retain the intellectual property in their American headquarters but the manufacturing is done overseas. Bayh-Dole is protectionist, the US system was protectionist. It built its intellectual property and it built its manufacturing economy. Now all this is changing and Bayh-Dole needs to change. 

Could university reform that gives universities more independence affect their capacity to patent more? 

The universities’ senior managers need to take the university’s role in helping the social and economic development in Europe seriously. However, I know that all senior managers have major concerns over the money – to fund their buildings, to cope with the number of students they are expected to teach and keep their research fresh with new equipment. For that, they need member states to put money in and say that this money is for knowledge transfer and that we expect you to adopt good practices. 

You can just restrict it to industry – and that is appropriate for scientific, technical and medical biotech perhaps – but there are universities in humanities and social sciences that have a huge impact on policies and so when we talk about industry we should also be talking about policy makers and people who use the research results to improve the social and economic context in which we work in Europe. 

It could be that a university takes someone who works in accountancy and has views on how the fiscal regime might change. That research can influence fiscal policies and enable technology transfer – patenting, licensing, company creation. So there are different ways in which knowledge transfer can come out of different types of universities. Each university must understand why it is engaging in knowledge transfer and what type of knowledge transfer it needs. 

Do all universities have a knowledge transfer office? 

No. But I think that is something that will very clearly come out of the consultation on the European Research Area (ERA) – that there is a requirement for the member states to look at this. Knowledge transfer needs to be done by someone who understands the university community and can take that understanding to the outside world. A lot of it is common sense and not being too technical, too precious and too sensitive to one’s own importance and knowledge. 

And that is what Proton is about – healthy people in knowledge transfer offices to develop professional standards and services that they can give to their universities. We do some training ourselves and commission some to private providers. 

There might be some 100,000 people engaged in knowledge transfer in Europe – in industry, economic development agencies, universities. That is a huge number and if we can get those people – in a professional manner – to work on professional standards providing professional services that would be a huge step forward. 

In summary, what is needed is to get professional people working on knowledge transfer, to ease the patent system and to get the member states and university senior managers to understand that this is part of their role. 

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