UK Universities – Fraunhofer They Are Not

Prof Andy Hopper, president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology - and a pioneer of the UK computing industry - recently suggested that universities should surrender more of their Intellectual Property (IP). Perhaps it is time to reveal Father Christmas does not exist and also that Andy may be a little disappointed if, by some remote chance, UK universities do open up their treasure chests. While some of that IP is high quality - much of it is not. Furthermore the plan to use a UK version of the Fraunhofer Society model to prize IP out of the cold dead hand of universities is, itself, somewhat flawed.

A research organisation permitted to play by itself for a prolonged period eventually becomes blind to the needs of industry. And over the past two decades UK universities have become particularly remote and detached from manufacturing industry. This is not unique to the UK but a problem across both Europe and the US. In Germany The Fraunhofer Society was formed in 1949 by representatives of both academia and industry with a view to bridging the divide between research in universities and the development requirements of companies. The society provides a focus for research and is a repository for IP developed within joint university and industry projects.

As Andy Hopper pointed out IP is a key issue but it is something of a puzzle as to why universities, which are after all public bodies, feel they have any claim over it. It is rather like a builder fixing your roof then charging you rent to live under it. Acorn Computers, which Mr Hopper played a key role in founding, came into being because a Cambridge University department needed a small computer for an experiment. Like much innovation in the UK the Acorn Atom, the forerunner to the BBC Micro and great grandfather of ARM, was developed on the boundary of academia and industry. The IP stayed with Acorn: if the computer were being developed today the IP would most likely end up sucked into the university.

The changing relationship between universities and industry within the UK is largely down to a generation of politicians that went straight from academia into politics without dirtying its hands in industry. Universities have also become adept at lobbying, PR and flattering politicians. The impression today is that all innovation is carried out in universities, that they are the only organisations that should be funded to do it and, lastly, that they are good at it.

Now the plan is for the UK to imitate The Fraunhofer Society experience. Unfortunately that plan is being drawn up by politicians and academics rather than businessmen. The German version of Fraunhofer is focused on those incremental innovations that make industrial processes more efficient and have provided Germany with a leading edge in manufacturing. These innovations are often less than exciting and, while they often provide the basis of a decent research paper, they seldom get the researcher a mention in The New Scientist. By their very nature these innovations will not provide the stand alone IP required by a spin out or start up company. The researcher will not be walking out of their department with enough information in their head to become the next Mark Zuckerberg. This means, unless there is a radical change in the relationship between industry and academia, the UK's attempt at Fraunhofering will merely end up forcing worthless public funded IP down the throats of a sceptical business community.