Knowledge and technology transfer


EU firms are struggling to better exploit public-funded research and transform findings into patents and innovations that generate growth. Barriers to collaboration between the public and private sectors still exist, in particular when it comes to sharing revenues and costs.

While science has become increasingly important for innovation and thus competitiveness, the European Commission argues that "making better use of publicly funded R&D is a significant problem" in the EU.

Increasing access to knowledge by sharing research results and improving knowledge transfer between public research and industry was identified, in April 2007, as one of the objectives of the relaunched European Research Area (ERA). A Communication on improving knowledge transfer between research institutions and industry across Europe calls for better exploitation of research results and reveals that an average university in Europe generates far fewer inventions and patents compared to its North American counterpart. 

  • Knowledge transfer comprises capturing and transmitting research findings, skills and competence from those who generate them to those who transform them into economic outcomes - either explicitly (patents) or tacitly (know-how). It includes both commercial and non-commercial activities such as research collaborations, consultancy work, licensing, the creation of spin-offs, mobility of researchers and the publication of scientific articles. 
  • Technology transfer is the process of developing practical applications for scientific research. It is a term used to describe a formal transfer of rights to use and commercialise new discoveries and innovations resulting from scientific research to another party. 

EU member states have introduced a number of initiatives to facilitate knowledge transfer between public research organisations and the private sector, including legislative changes, guidelines and model contracts - without much success.

The underperformance of European universities in delivering patents compared to their North American counterparts is, according to the Commission, largely due to "a less systematic and professional management of knowledge and intellectual property". Other barriers include cultural differences between the business and science communities and a lack of incentives for them to work together, as well as legal barriers that hinder co-operation. 

In a 2007 communication, the Commission thus argues that knowledge transfer between research institutions and industry should be improved by creating the right conditions for successful knowledge transfer and promoting an entrepreneurial mindset. In an annex, it proposes voluntary guidelines to help universities, research and technology organisations and other publicly funded R&D bodies to collaborate better. 

A Commission-led stakeholder consultation on existing knowledge-transfer systems and the legal situation regarding transnational research co-operation identified three major obstacles to transnational research collaboration: 

  • Cultural differences; 
  • regulatory differences, and; 
  • difficulties in finding partners. 

For these reasons, both public- and private-sector actors consider short-term co-operation to be unattractive and complicated and would consider transnational collaboration of interest only if it is part of a long-term, structured alliance. 

The consultation also showed that the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) ownership regimes and joint-ownership issues are particularly difficult for most stakeholders. They called for urgent progress to be made on the Community Patent - which has been stalled in Council for years due to language disputes - knowledge transfer officers and increased funding for knowledge transfer activities in particular, in collaborative research and partner search.

In addition, a survey carried out by European Public Research Organisations (PRO) found that a consolidated public research knowledge transfer process is underway in many European countries. However, there is an urgent need to professionalise the activities of these offices.

The survey also found that the poor performance of European knowledge transfer offices (KTOs) regarding knowledge transfer output indicators related to the patent protection process. The lack of invention disclosure, patent filing and licensing is due to the absence of an efficient and easily-accessible patent system in Europe, the survey concluded.

As a follow-up to its spring 2007 Communication on knowledge transfer, the Commission adopted, on 10 April 2008, a specific Recommendation aimed at helping member states adapt their policies on the management of intellectual property and knowledge transfer activities. The annexed "Code of Practice" aims to offer universities and other PROs "operational principles which they should rely on when developing or reviewing institutional policies". 

"European universities and other public research organisations need to engage more actively in the exploitation of publicly-funded research results. This is necessary in order to stimulate innovation and maximise the benefits of publicly funded research - so we can turn scientific research into new products and services which will create new industries and jobs," said Enterprise and Industry Commissioner Günter Verheugen at the launch of the Commission's Recommendation on the management of intellectual property in knowledge transfer activities and Code of Practice for universities and other public research organisations in April 2008.

Science and Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik added that the EU member states "need to become better at turning research results into commercially or socially successful innovations". "Proper management by public research organisations of their intellectual property is crucial for transferring knowledge to business, for licensing new technologies or creating spin-off companies. Doing this on a European scale brings new opportunities. We cannot afford to let valuable inventions lie idle in laboratories or on bookshelves." 

Michel Cosnard, the chairman of Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique (INRIA), agrees that technology transfer in the EU could be improved. "The problem is not that universities are doing too much basic research. It is more about companies not taking care of basic research or future and emerging technologies in their strategic plans. Companies are too shy in this respect and don't care about basic research. I think companies need to sustain basic research in Europe," he said.  

He thinks there are three ways in which technology transfer should be strengthened. First, cooperation and collaborative programmes between big companies and research organisations can be established through better understanding between the parties and design and construction of competitiveness clusters. Second, it is also possible to improve the transfer of competences from research labs to companies, through companies hiring more researchers. 

Last but not least, Cosnard says technology transfer by creating start ups is "a very good way as some of the start ups will evolve and become SMEs or big companies or are just bought up by other companies". However, he added that more support for start-up creation is needed to allow them to grow. "For this, we need more money and venture capital," he argued, deploring the fact that there is three to five times more venture capital in the United States than in Europe. He believes this may be because the European market is still too fragmented. In the meantime, "the start ups cannot grow at the same speed in Europe as they do in the US," he said. 

Laurent Kott, the CEO of INRIA-Transfert
, an independent company in charge of commericalising INRIA research results, said there were two major concerns regarding technology transfer: the maturation of ideas in research labs and seed funding. 

Regarding the first, he referred to demonstrating the proof of technology concept and developing a business approach before the research results come out of the laboratory. As for seed money, he said it is very difficult to find the first €100,000-150,000 in equity to help try out promising ideas. 

Magnus Madfors, director of R&D Policy at Ericsson, argued that the main means of boosting TT was to ensure that the different actors understand each others' needs. He said that academia and universities should "understand the future needs of industry in order to do research on the right sector". Meanwhile, he said, industry should understand the "knowledge and the needs of the academia" and present its vision of the future, so that academics can see if it has any potential research that could fit that vision. 

"Hire smart people, trust them and flourish their working environment," said Andrew Herbert, the managing director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge (UK) listing the requirements for successfull TT. He added that smart people can not necessarily be attracted with money only and that a favourable georaphical location of the company or research organisation and the surrounding public infrastructure play at least as big a role in their choice of work place. 

The Responsible Partnering Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct between the European University Association (EUA), the European Industrial Research Management Association (EIRMA), the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO) and the pan-European Association of Knowledge Transfer Offices (ProTon Europe) states that, compared to the United States, India or China, "stereotypically, traditions of lengthy philosophical debate and too much central management hinder [in Europe] the emergence of the 'can do' attitudes that are required to make progress in this important area". 

Bernhard Hertel  of Garching Innovation, a German company made up of an interdisciplinary team of scientists, businesspeople and lawyers which works closely with the largest German basic research organisation (the Max Planck Society), thinks technology transfer has become a major issue for research institutions. "It is used not only for generating money by licensing out inventions made by the scientists but also to demonstrate the relevance for society in general of research projects funded with taxpayers' money. New and better products create new jobs [while] spin-off companies contribute to the modernising of the industry and are a source for cooperation projects in new and innovative fields of technology." 

France Biotech, the French biotech industry association, recently identified a number of weak points in technology transfer and outlined a set of recommendations regarding the legislative and regulatory issues and best-practice exchange as well as a proposal on how to professionalise the existing technology transfer structures.

France Biotech lists the following main difficulties faced by enterprise: First, the need, for each single invention, to deal with a multiplicity of interlocutors with different policies and varying levels of professionalism. Second, structural weaknesses including poor knowledge of industrial property and of how to manage contracts with the academic world. Moreover, there is a lack of resources, a lack of appropriate training and professionalism among certain interlocutors and a lack of structured and systemic offerings of technology, the association asserts.

ProTon Europe, an international organisation for knowledge transfer in Europe, considers the patent system to be an essential tool for knowledge transfer from public research. "Most pre-competitive research is performed by public research organisations such as universities, which are a key source of innovation from technology transfer to knowledge transfer. In the United States, more than 70% of all patents are performed by public research organisations (PROs). In Europe, university patents represent only 2.5% of filed European Patent Office (EPO) patents whereas their contribution to innovation is much higher - some 30-50%," explained Gilles Capart, chairman of the ProTon patent policy special interest group. In addition, "university patents are strategic, as they are designed to encourage investment in innovation whereas many industry patents are tactical, intended to protect market share," he added. 

"Europe is 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. These small technical things create opportunity costs and make the whole process more expensive," added the chairman of the board of ProTon Europe Gillian McFadzean. Nevertheless, "knowledge transfer is not only about patents," McFadzean said. In addition to introducing an easier patent system, "we need to get member states and university senior managers to take seriously the university's role, for the public benefit, in helping social and economic development in Europe," she added. 

The editor of Science|Business news service, Richard L. Hudson, argues that politicians need to stop fussing about the spending gap with other countries and instead focus on the gap "at the root of Europe's chronic under-performance in technology" - the one between science and business. "Into that gap falls the patent that goes unexploited, the research report that gets ignored, or the researcher who leaves for richer labs in San Francisco or Singapore." The Science|Business news service's Innovation Manifesto, published in October 2006, puts forward nine ideas on how to fill the science-business gap by changing the legal framework and organisational structure of corporations and universities.

  • 4 April 2007: Increasing access to knowledge by sharing research results and improving knowledge transfer between public research and industry becomes one of the objectives of the re-launched European Research Area (ERA).
  • 4 April 2007: The Commission adopted a Communication on improving knowledge transfer between European research institutions and industry and Voluntary guidelines for universities and other research institutions to improve their links with industry across Europe.
  • 10 April 2008: The Commission adopted a Recommendation on the management of intellectual property in knowledge transfer activities and a Code of Practice for universities and other public research organisations. Member states should inform the Commission, by mid-2010, of measures implemented on the basis of the Recommendation. 
  • April 2008: The Responsible Partnering Initiative published a report on effective research-industry cooperation.
  • 2008: The Commission plans to establish a university-industry knowledge transfer forum to give public authorities, universitites and other PROs and industry a place to meet and co-ordinate their actions.
  • 28 May 2008: INRIA conference on Innovating for competitiveness in ICT: towards an EU framework for technology transfer in Brussels. Stakeholders are invited to continue the debate on iScience blog.
  • Euroscience - European association for the promotion of science and technologyTechnology Transfer

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