Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence



Memorandum submitted by Cambridge University

INTRODUCTION

  Cambridge University has been the source of engineering and physical science based innovation for hundreds of years and over the century the industrial application of this innovation has steadily increased to the point that the University is now surrounded by some 1,200 high technology companies employing around 30,000 people. The University's graduates influence research and development worldwide and the way the University governs its activities and handles intellectual property rights has been taken as a model for the nurturing and commercial exploitation of innovation.

ORIGINS

  Undoubtedly the most important ingredient making possible technology transfer and innovation at Cambridge has been the scientific and technological excellence of the University. In 1969 a committee chaired by Nobel Laureate Sir Nevill Mott reported:

    "The University already contains probably the largest concentration of physical, technological, biological, medical and agricultural research laboratories in any university in this country. If the Government research laboratories in Cambridge and its immediate neighbourhood are added to these, the whole complex may be regarded as the largest non-industrial concentration in the country. The investment in scientific staff, equipment and supporting facilities is therefore exceptionally high. The University investment in the application of science and technology to industrial problems is correspondingly high."

  Contributions have been made across the spectrum of engineering and the physical sciences and the presence of the pioneering Computer Laboratory made computing facilities available not only to academic staff but to university entrepreneurs from an early date, making possible early industrial applications.

  With the proliferation of companies around Cambridge and its increasing industrial influence worldwide, it is clear that the Mott Committee's conclusion remains sound today.

  The Mott report was instrumental in shifting the outlook of local planners who had previously opposed industrial developments in the area. Because of its lack of heavy industrial history, there were very few "brown field" sites in the area, in contrast with, say MIT which had a good deal of run-down industrial property around it. This has been to an extent an impediment to full exploitation of University expertise.

  Cambridge high tech companies (companies active in emerging and diffusing technologies) have university origins at some remove. The Technical Design Consultancies (Cambridge Consultants, PA Technology, the Generics Group and the Technology Partnership), all of which have close links with Cambridge University, have been particularly important in promoting technology transfer, stimulating new enterprises and disseminating knowledge in the area. The Cambridge Science Park founded in the 1970s was key to these developments.

  As the "Cambridge Phenomenon"—as it has been termed—became better known, business service establishments moved into the city providing a range of legal, accounting, consultancy, PR, and other services.

  The St John's Innovation Centre, founded in 1987 provides active support for business development, now has over 70 tenant start-up firms with a combined turnover of over £20 million. SJIC has become the centre of a range of business support activities for high tech enterprise.

  The funding requirements of the new enterprises have become increasingly recognised. The university saw very early the need for seedcorn finance and participates in seed capital funds, including the Quantum Fund, and Cambridge Research and Innovation Ltd. Increasingly, successful entrepreneurs have turned venture capitalist and are making available further funding to start up companies. These include Amadeus Capital (Hermann Hauser, a Cambridge graduate and founder of ACORN etc), Merlin Ventures, a biotechnology fund (Chris Evans is not a Cambridge graduate but chose to set up Chiroscience etc in Cambridge) and the Gateway Fund founded by Nigel Brown.

THE UNIVERSITY AS A HIGH TRUST ENVIRONMENT

  An ethos of trust and professional autonomy underlie the liberal policy of the University towards innovative activity by its staff.

  The University is non-bureaucratic and largely self-governing. Academics have considerable autonomy, but an informal system of checks and balances ensures close attention to teaching, research and administrative duties. In the engineering department, for example, which has the highest number of university spin-out enterprises, teaching performance and student assessments are closely monitored and professors are heavily involved in undergraduate teaching. There is a strong research culture and incentives to maintain research performance. Assessment is based on output and there have been minimal bureaucratic obstacles to staff engaging in innovative activities.

  The approach to intellectual property is part of this liberal ethos. Unlike almost all other universities, Cambridge University does not claim title to the intellectual property created by its employees in the course of their duties. In practice, research in the University is largely funded by the Research Councils, charities and industry, all of which external sponsors require the University to manage the intellectual property output of their funding to the benefit of the inventors and the University. As a result the prevailing ethos is one in which the inventors are motivated to exploit their research as the University is able to work with them in a facilitating way rather than compelling them to work with a potentially heavy-handed bureaucracy. The latter either drives activities underground or stifles initiative, both of which Cambridge would find unacceptable.

FUTURE CHALLENGES

  Funding has been attracted to the University through industrial funding of R&D and establishment of embedded companies or joint ventures with laboratories (Glaxo, Hitachi, Toshiba, Wellcome, Microsoft, BP, Unilever etc). The aim is to insure that the University secures returns on these collaborations, the detailed terms of which differ quite widely according to perceptions of mutual benefit. Management education and research has been encouraged through the recently-founded Judge Institute of Management Studies. The Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing provides a range of business support activities and research into the management of technology. These are still early stage developments.

  The number of new enterprises locally has slightly declined from the time in the 1980s when there were 100 start-ups per year in Cambridge, according to the County Council data-base, although there is evidence that the average size of companies is increasing. This reduction in numbers may be a statistical artefact, but other evidence suggests that growing pressures on staff in the University make it increasingly difficult for them to find time to commercialise science and technology. In a time of rigorous research assessment, patents and other forms of commercialisation are not recognised as research outputs. The formality of research and teaching demands is increasing and the scope for spontaneity may be less. "Death by accountability" is a real danger.

  There are also genuine planning and cultural conflicts as a relatively small city with overloaded infrastructure and its own budgetary problems seeks to come to terms with the needs and expectations of high-technology business.

WHAT IS NEEDED FROM POLICY MAKERS?

  Support for world class science and engineering research with adequate funding.

  Adequate pay and career structure for scientists and technologists.

  A minimum of assessment bureaucracy so that entrepreneurship is encouraged rather than stifled.

  Ensure that the research councils' established "gate keepers" do not inhibit innovative science. Peer review can easily backfire here.

  Understand what Universities can and can't do in dealing with industry, and that industry needs to be forthcoming too.

  Support not only for invention and early innovation but sustained innovation which secures returns. This calls for sustained growth of new enterprises and good links with established corporations.

  Recognise the essential role that large companies play in nurturing small companies and provide incentives to encourage them to do so.

  Invest in leading centres rather than problem areas.

  Improve physical infrastructure, especially public transport and affordable housing.

  Simplify planning laws and speed up decision-making.

  One small action which could help would be to extend the area covered by Cambridge addresses—our address is a brand as well as a way of routing the mail.

17 January 1999


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 25 February 1999