President’s editorial: Commercialise research findings and ideas

The research and innovation bill will be released this autumn. In a challenging situation the Government is laying the foundations for the conditions in the knowledge community over the next four years.
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Also this autumn, a report will be published containing proposals on how to better support innovation at our universities. The proposals in the bill and the report will be critical in determining how we will emerge from this crisis and how Sweden will be able to boost its competitiveness for many years to come. Sweden as an innovation powerhouse is a theme close to IVA’s heart. 

At a webinar on 19 August, we had a dialogue about an industry perspective on research commercialisation. The participants were entrepreneurs, financial backers and representatives from small, medium and large companies and university holding companies. The seminar clearly showed the need for both universities and industry to understand and respect each other’s positions, needs and time perspectives. The long-term search for scientific knowledge can, for example, have a perspective of 25 years in certain research fields. Meanwhile, businesses may need to find solutions to problems in just one quarter.  Somewhere in between these two extremes there is fertile ground for productive collaboration.

Collaboration must be based on long-term relationship-building, presenting the expertise existing at universities, assess to knowledge “brokers” and environments where researchers and businesses can meet. Companies that have years of experience with inquisitive and academic research are able to take greater risks and develop new, transformative solutions and products. Universities should therefore take an active role in matching their researchers’ knowledge with the needs of companies, and build long-term, strategic partnerships. There are more than 6,500 professors at Swedish universities. Only a minority of these are entrepreneurial by nature and have the capacity to commercialise their research results themselves. The rest need support to turn their findings into useful innovation. But the answer is not to try to turn them all into entrepreneurs. Universities can do a lot to facilitate commercialisation of the results and ideas of their researchers.

Based on my experience I see two possible paths to increase mobility between universities and businesses – both taken from examples in the USA. The first is to have professors spending up to 20 percent of their time as consultants in a key corporate position. The second is to employ business experts or entrepreneurs as “professors of practice”, primarily to teach but also to participate in research projects. Both models are excellent tools to help businesses and universities understand each other. Research-based entrepreneurship should be in the hands of entrepreneurs, professional investors and business development experts. It is important for them to personally believe in the ideas presented, to have experience and business skills, and be willing to risk their equity to build successful companies. The role of the Government is to use laws and regulations to facilitate the process so they are willing to do this in Sweden.

I’m hoping for a strong research and innovation bill that provides tools and supports the role of researchers as engines of innovation. I hope there will be concreate measures to improve activities that drive innovation at universities. I also hope to see a budget that includes investment in research, innovation and renewal. We must make these kinds of investments – we simply cannot afford not to.