Science and TechnologyWritten evidence submitted by Dr Peter Dean

When I was a reader in Biochemistry in Liverpool University (1968–1984), I was fairly certain that none of my colleagues knew the meaning of innovation. Scientists were supposed to study science not invent, patent and take inventions into the marketplace. I had a modest sized research group working on three main areas; steroid hormones, squalene cyclases, affinity chromatography. My main criticism of the system of control of Intellectual Property at Liverpool is that there was none. Research discoveries were reported on an ad hoc basis to a senior administrator. He and his committee would decide what if anything to do with an invention. The innovation process was foreign and I suspect somewhat distasteful to the academics in my department if not throughout academe. For example, one of my colleagues (Dr Duncan Troup) and I invented the “Backfriend” orthopaedic support. We funded the start of a company (Medesign) ourselves without any support from the University.

My biochemical research resulted in my being asked to consult for a number of commercial companies (Genentech, GD Searle, Amicon, HM Government and Ayerst Harrison & McKenna amongst others). As a result of discussions with the latter company in Montreal, I was asked to research ideas for a possible test to monitor diabetics for glycated haemoglobin. The proposal was that if I could discover such a test then the company would protect any discovery by applying for patents at their expense and we would decide about innovation if and when the invention was filed. After about three months, I discovered that immobilised boronate bound glycosylated haemoglobin and showed (with Professor Sir Alistair Bellingham) that diabetic patients could be very rapidly and more accurately assessed using my procedure than the electrophoretic methods used at the time. Indeed we showed that one of my students (Sarojani Angal) was not diabetic but beta-thalassaemic (Alistair had observed “fast” haemoglobin in her blood which was easily confused with diabetes). The patents were filed with more than 9 months to run before completion. In other words there would have been plenty of time to find another sponsor (eg BTG). The company informed me that their research objectives had changed and they were happy for me to take over the patents as inventor. I approached the University development officer and was told very firmly that it was my invention and they were not interested in pursuing or supporting the patent. Bear in mind that a UK patent filing could easily cost £20,000 per year for foreign filing costs at the time (about the size of my salary as a reader). I then approached Amicon for whom I had been doing some consultancy and they agreed to take on the product. Without any help from the University towards the negotiations, I agreed to sell the patent to the Americans for a token sum with the understanding that they paid my laboratory 5% of sales and 40% if the company was taken over. Two years later, W.R.Grace acquired Amicon and vigorously defended the US patent (the Americans failed to file outside the USA). Whilst my lab and I did accrue some reward from US sales, we had absolutely nothing from worldwide sales although the method was very widely exploited and still is the basis for the HbA1c method, what irks is the complete failure of the establishment to recognise a major worldwide contribution to diabetic health and no academic recognition was offered from fellow academics for 20 years of invention and innovation. There was a stigma attached to commercialisation which caused me to leave the University system. Towards the end of my stay in Liverpool, I was invited to help develop a new company (P & S Biochemicals) which attracted a number of awards including the Prince of Wales Innovation Awards and The Mersyside Entreprise Award. Despite all the attention from the media, I do not feel the University ever really understood the objectives of the company which was to create a manufacturing base for making tools for genetic engineers. When the Finnish Sugar Company offered to fund a personal chair for me with a large research grant to continue my work, the Vice Chancellor and his pro-vice (a Prof Harris) decided that 40% of the grant must be given to the University without discussion. Since this would have compromised the research and since I also was not that impressed by the change in title, I immediately applied to work elsewhere. This I regard as an excellent example of why the University could not innovate even if you paid them to do so. I understand that nowadays venture capitalists offer “development” funds to some universities with the proviso that they get full commercial rights. This cannot be the best way. Attempts in the past such as BTG, 3i and AGC have failed to live up to expectations and have left academic inventions devoid of innovation.

Another innovation failure at Liverpool was my experience with steroid hormones. My group and I made many antibodies to steroid hormones over the years I was at Liverpool. We were the first to construct assays for oestriol, oestradiol, cortisol, and many others. The University failed to set up a system to protect or commercialise these discoveries and all innovation was conducted single handedly.

I left the University in disgust (1984) to start Agricultural Genetics in Cambridge. We had an ideal opportunity to create an innovation laboratory which failed to materialise and led me to form Cambio three years later. Soon after, Professor (now Sir) Martin Evans brought the design of the UK’s first PCR machine to me and whilst the University did not stand in our way, the technical assistance we received was rather out of date and unimaginative so that we went to a local electronics firm to develop the machine rather than stay “in house”.

In 1992, Cambio was approached by Professor Malcolm Fergusson-Smith then Professor of Pathology at Cambridge, with a novel series of chromosome paints. We successfully commercialised these worldwide and were happily paying the laboratory in the region of £200,000 per year being a large proportion of sales of the product. The University technology transfer group (CUTS) decided to get involved in order to force an increase in the contribution made to the University. Their approach to negotiation caused Cambio to withdraw completely from the market, losing both sides considerable amounts of money. The Professor failed to keep the laboratory going as a result. The technology transfer officer was trained as a broker in the City and unfortunately did not understand negotiation is a two way process.

One general point worth mentioning is our British patent system. We have to complete a patent within 12 months of filing. In the USA, Japan and Canada to name but three, there is an extended grace period which allows inventors to talk about their inventions without compromising the patent which is some cases is three years retrospectively. Hence a UK filing from these countries can be significantly ahead of competitive inventions from the UK system.

Another point is that UK universities are very slow to innovate because the academic way is to explore every possibility, discuss the pros and cons ad libitum whereas the commercial need and method is to make decisions quickly even if the process has flaws.

British inventors lose out because the patent process is not clearly understood, because there is no clear way to innovate processes or products (the classic example is the failure to patent monoclonal antibodies). There is a dearth of good patent lawyers whereas in the USA there are probably too many. The perfect innovation team might include: The inventor, someone experienced in reducing inventions to practice, a good lawyer who has worked in the area, a lateral thinker who can get outside the box, a designer and marketing expert to bring the idea towards the final goal Pamela Ramsden’s book on top teams spells out the perfect group. AGC was classically unbalanced with 1500 AFRC scientists feeding all their inventiveness into one small office—no wonder it failed.

April 2012

Prepared 12th March 2013