ASTP-Proton’s onsite visit to the deep end of Cambridge Enterprise on 29 February 2016
by Christian Stein, CEO, Ascenion | President, ASTP-Proton
A bright and cold day at the Hauser Forum in West Cambridge, and a warm welcome from our technology transfer colleagues at Cambridge Enterprise (CE). To see how they work in the Brexit region of Europe was something I had been looking forward to. Our hosts organized an excellent all-day programme that gave a bird’s eye view of their work, structure and results.
The amount of bricks-and-mortar investment in and around Cambridge by industry, particularly pharma, IT and Biotech, in the last few years is mind-boggling: Microsoft, Bill Gates, Pfizer, GSK… What is Cambridge doing differently from us in knowledge and technology transfer to receive this influx of cash, companies and human resources capacity?
The day started with a history and geography lesson that reminded us why Cambridge is on the map of scientific excellence, and how the importance and meaning of this relatively small region – Cambridgeshire with only 5.7 million and Cambridge itself with only 125,000 inhabitants, plus its 30,000 students – is growing. This wealth was built on a long tradition of excellence in many different fields of science and research. And this is attractive, no matter what technology transfer does.
Cambridge established its own IP policy that gives a few degrees of freedom more to academics than other universities in the country give to theirs. Critical for success in technology transfer is – what a surprise – the critical mass of high-quality scientific results and inventions that attracts industry interest. Wherever you look, it is always critical mass that brings long-term success, and rarely individual beacons of excellence.
It’s simply easier to find bananas in a banana plantation than in a tropical forest. This environment opens windows of opportunities, and CE has made great use of them, allowing the participants of this workshop to look through these windows into the workings of CE. The instruments used by CE for developing early technologies and ideas are manifold and certainly a major contributor to their success, including:
- CE Venture Partners-Forum with investors and industry (these pay to be part of that round),
- open innovation platforms and incubators with industry (GSK at Stevenage Biocatalyst park (incubator),
- CE Seed Funds, allowing very early investments that make a difference; implemented in a professional, investor-driven environment (arm’s length investment committee),
- Cambridge Innovation Capital Funds,
- the new Apollo Funds (together with Imperial and UCL and three large pharma partners) to develop new therapies from very early projects.
All these funding and matching instruments help Cambridge researchers and enable Cambridge to drive early ideas to the inflection point of investment in ways that many other TTOs in UK and elsewhere in Europe can only dream of.
CE also provides an exemplary business service for university scientists and researchers that conduct consultancy work. CE provides the complete service around consulting, including billing and liability insurance, and scientists that do consultancy work, can do this safely in their professional capacity under the umbrella and brand of the University of Cambridge.
After learning about these and other wonderful tools that CE has at its disposal, it was comforting to see that the everyday life of technology transfer professionals in Cambridge is not that different to that of others in our profession. Never-ending discussions on market conditions, where the benchmarks are, and why the TTO’s work is valuable and useful for researchers, industry and politicians fill our days. Conflict-of-interest questions are also part of the daily grind: technology transfer paradise was yesterday – even in Cambridge.
You can find more information, hard facts and statistics about this 52-year-old technology transfer office, including its annual report 2015, at: http://www.enterprise.cam.ac.uk/about-us/our-performance/.
Our colleagues in Cambridge gave us great insights, were very transparent and patiently answered all the questions put by this fascinated and lively audience of around 30 participants from all over Europe, both beginners and seasoned technology transfer professionals.
One last piece of advice and basic rule for success in technology transfer that will lead us straight into the hearts of our researchers and inventors: ‘Use guidance, not rules, and never forget to weigh every case individually. Thinking helps. Believe it!’
Thank you to everybody who contributed to this successful and truly interesting day: to Jeff Skinner for moderating and organizing, to the ASTP-Proton headquarters for the organization, to everybody from CE who invested their valuable time to present their work and finally to all participants who made this a memorable day.