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More help needed for student engineers to commercialise work

Barriers to forming university spin out companies should be tackled, a panel of engineering entrepreneurs, investors and students has suggested.

Panellists at a Royal Academy of Engineering debate in London suggested the Offices of Technology Transfer (TTOs) could do more make spin out formation easy by updating their approach to IP and equity.

Amongst the panellists was Peter Brewin, founder of Concrete Canvas, who said young entrepreneurs should have access to advice from experienced business leaders, as well as full time academics.

Ian Shott CBE FREng, chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Committee, said support for students commercialising their work could be improved.

He suggested that individual universities do not always have large enough communities to warrant individual TTOs, and the UK’s network of TTOs could be consolidated into fewer, more effective operations.

Serial investor David Gammon added that he has generally tended to avoid university spin outs because the IP position is often too complicated. David argued that this situation needs simplifying and recommended that any company spun out of a university, or that has benefited from using university property, equipment and expertise, issue a 2% standard “golden undiluted share” to the university.

Matt Clifford, CEO of Entrepreneur First, suggested that some universities can also impede their own support for entrepreneurship by being reluctant to damage their post-graduation employment figures, and occasionally even refusing to support companies with team members from other universities.

Responding to the panel’s comments, Arnoud Jullens, head of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub, said: “The UK is an IP rich country and universities have already made a significant contribution to encouraging young people’s entrepreneurial spirit by supporting spin-out companies. For some institutions, this support network is still evolving, and the Royal Academy of Engineering is in a prime position to bring TTOs, the investment community, and entrepreneurs together to identify the areas where existing support for young entrepreneurs can be augmented, and barriers can be removed.

“The Enterprise Hub was established to play precisely this role. Through the Hub, the Academy hosts events and discussions, provides policy advice, and ultimately utilises the unrivalled expertise of the Academy’s Fellowship to ensure that the country’s brightest entrepreneurial minds are given the best possible chance to succeed. The ability to create wealth from innovation is essential in building a strong, competitive economy in the UK.”

Beyond universities, wider challenges were raised during the debate including patent protection. Brewin suggested that the UK should increase protection for SMEs against large corporations by, for example, taking a punitive damages approach to ensure the risk is balanced.

For many entrepreneurs, access to funding is seen as one of the biggest challenges. Gammon argued that capital is widely available in the UK, but finding it and successfully pitching a case remains a major challenge. Current ‘angels’ look for the most outstanding opportunities, creating a limited market.

To help counter this, he suggests encouraging more people to become angel investors, and mandating UK pension and life insurance companies to invest up to 1% of their UK-sourced assets in early-stage companies. Life and pension funds have a need for long-duration assets which early-stage companies match. This, he proposed, could completely revitalise the current UK model, which lags significantly behind the US.

Ian Shott added: “For a small country, the UK has an outstanding university heritage and there is a real opportunity to leverage this talent.

“Universities are already willing to provide support to students, but some could take greater responsibility still for supporting and nurturing our bright young entrepreneurs without inhibiting the process with any ‘gatekeeper’ bureaucracy. Today’s debate, and the Academy’s wider Engineering for Growth campaign, reflect our ambition to create a vibrant hub for enterprise and entrepreneurship that will encourage the long term sustainable economic growth of the country.”

Following the roundtable debate, judges gathered at the Academy to view this year’s entries for the Innovation Hothouse final, a competition that encourages final year students to pursue entrepreneurial endeavours. Following six strong finalist presentations, judges announced that James Eaton of Brunel University had been awarded first place for his adjustable sprint Velok Sprint shoe, which is 20% lighter than competitor shoes and can accommodate up to three sizes within one shoe.

Klayton Palmer of Queen Mary University won second prize for his new type of construction toy made up identical modular pieces that enables construction without glue or nuts in three directions while still providing flat surfaces on all faces. Third place was awarded to Chris Ranson of University of Glasgow for his Ultra-Portable Acoustic Guitar, which is small enough to fit into onboard hand luggage for aircraft.

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