Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park offers innovation ideas

TORONTO — Innovation is a glorious thing. But unless that innovation or invention can be transformed into a revenue-generating entity at some point, its value is limited, according to the academic director of Oxford University’s Begbroke Science Park.
To make it that far, an idea needs a lot of nurturing and support, both financial and otherwise, said Peter Dobson at a session titled The Innovation Highway: How to Manage, Measure and Profit from It, at the Ontario Centres of Excellence Discovery 2007 conference.
Oxford, he said, uses an integrated approach to the process that draws on the strengths of a variety of academic departments across the entire university. Innovation is fostered at the earliest stages through academic courses targeted to both under and post-grad students, and even to the public at large, and fed through a huge amount of mentoring in the startup phase.
“The whole university is contributing one way or another to the process from the invention to the final realization of revenue,” he said. “We’ve just generally created a completely new ethos for innovation and invention.”
An average of eight or nine companies a year are spun off through Isis Innovation Ltd., Oxford’s technology transfer firm.
Its success can be replicated elsewhere, said Dobson, if a number of principles are kept in mind.
The first is figuring out if the time is right for your particular innovation. “I think many inventions are not really at the right time; there is always a time for an invention to have its day,” he said.
The next is that the whole process takes a lot more time and money than you might think, he said.
Getting to the product development stage costs 10 times as much as the original research. “And that’s only the first stage,” Dobson said. “You’ve also got to decide if there’s a market or business out there, and many academic scientists tend to ignore that.”
 To get around some of the time delays, incubators need to come up with solutions to reduce the time between discovery and revenue generation, he said. “What we’d like to be able to do is shorten the time from the average of 12 years to six or less.”
Dobson advised startups to look at forming partnerships with more established firms as a way to cut costs, especially in the sales and marketing area.
“The thing is to not to be too greedy,” he said. “I’ve watched biotech companies at universities and they’ve been really hit hard by having to employ a huge sales and marketing team. If you can latch onto somebody else’s marketing team you share some of the value, but you ‘derisk’ it for everybody.”
Angel investors are the main source of funding for the firms spun out of the science park at the initial stage, but in the third phase there is a tendency these days to seek early IPOs, he said. But the private sector shouldn’t shoulder the entire burden, he added.
“The government has to have the responsibility to fund this kind of activity and more high science than it does now in the UK,” he said, adding that lower corporate taxation schemes, such as those offered by Ireland, are leading contributors to fostering IT innovation.
At this point, innovation has become such a key part of the global economy, especially in emerging economies and non-industrialized nations, that it can now be seen as an economic engine, said Debra Amidon, CEO of Wilmington, Mass.-based Entovation International, which describes itself as a hub of a world-wide network of experts in the new methods of knowledge innovation.
“Economic theory has a problem with knowledge because the more you share it, the more it grows,” she said. “It defies the economic principle of scarcity.”
Amidon said her organization has studied innovation hubs the world over and has come up with an architecture that describes the drivers behind those hubs and a way of measuring and monitoring intangible assets such as intellectual property.
OCE’s Discovery 2007 ends Wednesday.

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