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Three options for busy academics whose research could make money

Discovering that your research has commercial value is a mixed blessing for many researchers. Many researchers who come up with valuable Intellectual Property (IP) as a result of their work feel overwhelmed by the options they are presented with. Not wanting to abandon academia for business, many researchers do very little with the opportunities that arise, and as a result squander the chance to generate impacts from their work. However, you don’t have to change careers to exploit your IP. There are three ways to get as much impact as possible from your ideas, without having to give up your day job. We spoke to Stephen Oyston, Business Development Manager for N8 AgriFood at the University of York to find out more.

He explained that there are several ways to commercialize your ideas or “intellectual property” (IP) to realise impact from research. Each one has it up and downsides and the decision to go down one path over another will depend on the nature of your ideas, your institution, your personality and the level of commitment you are comfortable with. In all cases you should talk to your Technology Transfer Office (TTO) to assess the commercial opportunities of your IP and look at the potential commercialization mechanisms available to you. This will involve looking at potential applications and users of your IP, developing a commercialization plan and taking some initial steps.

The three typical routes available are:

  1. Making your ideas available for others to use on licence: many academics worry that if they negotiate with companies, their best ideas may get bought up and then shelved by corporations that want to protect their existing products from your new ideas. The good news is that you don’t have to give up the rights to use your work if you grant them a non-exclusive licence. With this arrangement, you can license your IP to as several different companies, and increase the likelihood that one of them manages to bring your ideas to market. Be careful though; if a company asks you to assign your IP to them, talk to your TTO and look at your options, or you may lose all rights over your IP. Your TTO will deal with the contracts. Then a third party pursues your impact, with minimal effort from you. Easy.

  2. Targeting a dream partner who can take your ideas to scale: this option takes a little bit more work, but not a lot. The problem of licensing your ideas to anyone who is willing to pay for the privilege (the non-exclusive license in the point above) is that these companies may not have the capability to develop your ideas to their potential. Even if they are capable of developing your ideas, they may have a different timescale to you and have quite different ideas about the sorts of impacts they want to see from your IP. Instead, consider working with your TTO to find a dream partner who shares your passion and priorities, and has the capabilities to develop your ideas in ways that will give you the impacts you most want to see. If you want to retain the right to develop your IP yourself in future, you need to go for a sole licence. A sole licence enables you to target a single organization you would like to develop your ideas, and you both have the right to use the IP. An exclusive licence allows the licensee to develop the IP in the confidence that no one else can access the IP. This can strengthen a research collaboration with your dream partner but caution is required. You will need to ensure you have chosen the most capable organisation to realise the potential of the IP.

  3. Spin out companies are the hardest work, but if you are prepared to invest some time in the beginning, your TTO can help you put a team in place to run the business for you, so you don’t have to quit the day job. You may be able to set up as a not-for-profit company enabling you to invest profits in charitable work linked to your research. The spin out route gives you the greatest amount of control over realising the impacts you want to see from your research. However, many businesses need to raise capital before they can launch, which may expose your personal finances to risk if you take loans, or compromise your control over the company if you bring in investors. If you go down this route, you will need to work closely with your TTO to develop your ideas, as your institution will have a vested interested. 

However busy you are, it is worth spending time negotiating the right deal if you want to commercialise your IP. Third parties and potential investors may have quite different motivations to you, so it is essential to have a really clear vision of the impacts you want to see arising from commercialisation before you go into any negotiation with commercial partners. Flexibility is necessary in any negotiation, but your TTO can help you get a deal that works for business, impact and your time.

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