Innovation – a problem for British universities?

Dr Peter Dean is Founding Director of Cambio. Having had an integral role in the development of modern tests for diabetes, and the industrial history of the polymerase chain reaction, here he offers some reflections on the challenges facing UK innovators.

“BACK in the 1970s, as biochemist at Liverpool University, I was fairly certain that none of my colleagues knew the meaning of innovation. Scientists were ‘supposed’ to study science – not invent, patent, or take products into the marketplace.

As for control of Intellectual Property – well, 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 academia. For example, I and a colleague invented the ‘Backfriend’ orthopaedic support. We funded the start of a company (Medesign) ourselves without any support from the university.

The diabetes gold-standard

My biochemical research resulted in my being asked to consult for a number of commercial companies as well as Her Majesty’s Government. One of these companies, based in Montreal, asked me to research ideas for a possible test to monitor glycated haemoglobin in diabetic patients.

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 we struck gold – I discovered that immobilised boronate did successfully bind glycosylated haemoglobin.

Moreover, Prof Sir Alistair Bellingham and I showed that diabetic patients could be more rapidly and accurately assessed using my procedure than the existing electrophoretic methods. We even showed that one of my own students was not diabetic at all, but beta-thalassaemic – Alistair observed ‘fast’ haemoglobin in her blood, which was easily confused with diabetes.

The patents were filed with more than nine months to run before completion.  The company then informed me that their research objectives had changed – but they were happy for me to take over the patents as inventor. That said, there would have been plenty of time to find another sponsor to commercialise the research.

Academic failure

So I then approached the University development officer – and was told very firmly that it was my invention, and the University was 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, which was about the same as my annual salary.

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 lab 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 – but Amicon had failed to file outside the USA. So whilst my lab and I did accrue some reward from US sales, we had absolutely nothing from worldwide royalties. Although the method was very widely exploited and still is the basis for the HbA1c test, what irks is the complete failure of the establishment to recognise a major worldwide contribution to diabetic health. There are 285 million diabetics worldwide.

No self interest?

Back then, the University could not innovate even if you paid them to do so. For example, my research group were the first to construct steroid hormone assays for oestriol, oestradiol, cortisol, and many others. The University failed to set up a system to protect or commercialise these discoveries. And when the Finnish Sugar Company (of all people!) offered to fund a personal chair for me with a large research grant, the Vice Chancellor decided that 40% of the grant must be given to the University without discussion. I immediately applied to work elsewhere.

In 1987 I founded my company Cambio in Cambridge. Soon after, Professor (now Sir) Martin Evans brought the design of the UK’s first Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine to me – and whilst the University did not stand in our way, the technical assistance we received from the University of Cambridge was… rather out of date, shall we say. Cambio ended up going to a local electronics firm to develop the PCR machine rather than stay ‘in house’.

We were later approached by the Professor of Pathology at Cambridge with a novel series of chromosome paints. We successfully commercialised these worldwide and were happily paying the Pathology laboratory around £200,000 per year for the privilege, which was a large proportion of product’s sales. Then the technology transfer group (Cambridge University Technical Services, with the rather unfortunate acronym of ‘CUTS’) decided to get involved.

CUTS tried to force an increase in the contribution made to the University. Their approach to negotiation meant that we had to withdraw completely from the market, which lost both us and the university’s pathology lab considerable amounts of money. The lab itself ended up being unsustainable as a result.

Cultural divides

These examples are from decades ago, but they illustrate the cultural divide which arguably still hasn’t been properly bridged. UK universities are very slow to innovate because the academic mindset is to explore every possibility, and discuss the pros and cons ad libitum – whereas the commercial need is to make decisions quickly, even if the process has flaws.”

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