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Outside Perspective: Reflecting on Technology Transfer Around the World

Fish Eye Photography of a City by Joshua Rawson-Harris
Credit: Joshua Rawson-Harris

The University of Edinburgh (UE) and Heriot-Watt (HW) University, in collaboration with six other regional colleges and universities, at least five municipal government agencies, and the Scottish government, have initiated a long-term goal to create a “data capital of Europe.” They will do this by leveraging the educational and research-based resources of regional academic institutions, along with the long-term support of municipal, regional, and national agencies and the private sector.

The program’s technological focus is on providing services based on high-speed data analytics and involves such things as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and cloud and blockchain. Both the UE and HW have made major educational and research commitments to this technology. Both UE and HW have strong, international reputations for excellence in science, engineering and technology, as well as business and entrepreneurship.

There are several important “take-aways” from the Edinburgh initiative, which may be obvious after careful reflection, but are frequently overlooked in the rush of excitement and enthusiasm to establish these innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems. The following “take-aways,” are based on a discussion with Mr. Gordon Douglas, COO, and Dr. John Lonsdale, Head of Enterprise Services of Edinburgh Innovations.

  • There must be a technology focus. It must be sufficiently broad to attract the interest of multiple, potential supporting organizations, yet sufficiently focused to make its commercial and economic payoff compelling and easily understood in the long term. This technology should focus on attracting investors for commercialization, as well as support from legislators and other elected officials.
  • Creating a regional innovation ecosystem requires a committed long-term public/private partnership. Such an initiative is simply too large with too many moving parts and competing goals for any single government agency, firm, or academic institution to achieve by itself.
  • Creating a regional innovation ecosystem is a “contact sport”. Nothing gets done without the interaction of committed individuals and most importantly a “voluntary” champion who will act as the project manager and coordinator among the many collaborating organizations who support the ecosystem initiative.
  • Articulate goals and objectives around which collaborators (and their agencies) can rally. “Becoming the Data Capital of Europe,” and (1) delivering 100,000 people qualified in data science-related subjects within 15 years; (2) 1000 partnerships with industry attracting external funding; (3) creation of 400 data-centric start-up companies.
  • There are many ways to view a return on investment for ecosystem development. Consider the creation of 400 start-up companies. Experience with start-ups, based on the anticipated commercialization of technological innovation, suggests that most of these 400 companies will fail, many within the first two years of establishment. Is this a failure? Not by any means! With a skilled workforce of 100,000 and thousands of industry partnerships, this shows a vibrant infrastructure of research, entrepreneurship and attraction of venture capital. While difficult to quantify now, one would expect the “Social Rate of Return (SSR)[1] [2]” to be significant.
  • Creating a regional innovation ecosystem is a multi-year evolutionary process with a small likelihood of immediately recognizable success. One can focus on smaller indicators of progress such as: increased student demand for training in technology focused areas, increased attention to innovation and entrepreneurship by elected officials and an increase in contract research and development by major corporations.
  • Establish a venture/entrepreneurship fund. Establishing such a fund, however small initially, especially through public and private partnership, is a powerful statement of commitment.
  • Academic institutions are logical catalysts around which technological innovation ecosystems can form and evolve. Universities can push for a larger focus on scientific and technical research, a spirit of entrepreneurship and encourage technological innovations to transfer from the labs to the private sector for commercialization.

by jack.pevenstein [at] (Jack Pevenstein)

Senior General Engineer/NIST Technology Transfer Advisor

[1]SRR used by the late Professor Edwin Mansfield of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Edwin Mansfield, “The Contributions of New Technology to the Economy,” a conference paper submitted to the American Enterprise Institute Conference of Research to the Economy and Society, October 3, 1994, p. 4.

[2]Edwin Mansfield,, “Social and Private Rates of Return from Industrial Innovations,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1977.

Released March 17, 2020, Updated March 19, 2020