Knowledge transfer: Comparing strengths, tracking trends

A new study, co-authored by UNU-MERIT, says that Europe outperforms the USA for new start-ups and licence agreements. However, Europe trails the USA for patent applications, licence income and invention disclosures. The European Knowledge Transfer Report 2013 draws on the most geographically diverse survey of knowledge transfer activities in Europe, covering more than 700 organizations in over 30 countries. Researcher Nordine Es-Sadki explains the approach, data and details below.

newshutterstock_120643687Most public sector research and development is carried out by universities or government research institutes, which together we define as public research organizations (PROs). A lot of this public research has immediate or potential commercial value, such as in aerospace, energy, healthcare and new materials. However, more remains to be done in terms of “consummating” knowledge and successfully bringing it to market.

For decades, governments have sought to streamline the transfer of commercially useful knowledge from the public research sector to private firms. This happens in various ways including informal contacts between staff of PROs and firms, through firms obtaining the expertise of PROs, through contracting out research, via start-ups that use know-how created by PROs, or through PRO licensing activities.

How to bridge the knowledge gap?
To encourage and support knowledge transfer activities, many European PROs have established Knowledge Transfer Offices (KTOs) to assess the patentability of inventions, interact with firms, and provide licensing expertise. These KTOs collect data that can be used to build indicators for the knowledge transfer activities of the PROs that they serve.

This information is of value not only for the KTOs themselves, but also for policy to support knowledge transfer. To this end, in April 2008, the European Commission adopted a Recommendation on the management of intellectual property in knowledge transfer activities and a Code of Practice for universities and other PROs. The aim was to offer a coherent framework for the management of intellectual property by the public research sector, to promote knowledge transfer in the EU.

What next? Roll out, promotion and practice
A monitoring and reporting system was set up to help roll out and promote this Recommendation and Code of Practice. The Knowledge Transfer Study is based on a contract between the European Commission Directorate General for Research, Empirica GmbH, Bonn (coordinator) as well as UNU-MERIT and the University of Applied Science North-Western Switzerland (Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, FHNW, Solothurn).

The study has two short-term goals: to collect internationally comparable data on the knowledge transfer activities of Europe’s leading PROs while assessing the KTO uptake of the Code of Practice for knowledge transfer activities. The longer-term goal is to provide KTOs that serve PROs with information and analyses to help improve their services.

What role for UNU-MERIT?
UNU-MERIT collected internationally comparable indicators of knowledge transfer activities by the leading European PROs within the (then) 27 EU Member States and 12 associated countries. Two surveys were conducted during the springs of both 2011 and 2012.

The 2011 survey was sent to 705 universities and research institutes in 39 countries. Then in 2012 a survey was sent to 805 PROs. The survey results provide the largest and most geographically diverse dataset to-date on the knowledge transfer activities of European PROs, with valid responses from 27 of the (then) 27 EU Member States and from nine of the 12 associated states.

Results: KTO characteristics, licence income and international comparison
Most European KTOs are young, with only 16.5 per cent established before 1990 and more than half, 60.7 per cent, established after 2000. Additionally, 52.1 per cent have fewer than five employees (in full-time equivalents). These results suggest that most KTOs in Europe are still developing experience and capabilities with managing the intellectual property produced by their affiliated university or research institute.

Regression results have also shown that the size of the KTO measured by its employees has a significant and positive impact on the number of invention disclosures, licence agreements, licence income and start-ups. Many KTOs could therefore be struggling with a lack of sufficient and experienced staff in catching up with the performance of their peers in the USA.

Licence income is highly concentrated, with the top 10 per cent of universities accounting for 86.5 per cent of all licence income. Biomedical IP is the largest generator of licence income, accounting for 87.0 per cent of the total license income for 2011. This indicates that the presence of a strong health or medical faculty at a university or research institute is likely to result in above average performance for licence income.

es-sadkiNordine Es-Sadki joined UNU-MERIT as a researcher in January 2011. He obtained his bachelor degree in economics from Maastricht University in 2009. In 2010 he obtained his master degree in economics from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam with distinction. He has been working part-time during his studies as an economics teacher at several secondary schools and currently works part-time at a lyceum in Maastricht.