Universities must rethink their start-up strategies

UK universities need to rethink how they fund start-ups and release IP, says Andy Hopper, head of the Computer Lab at Cambridge University

Andy Hopper, entrepreneur and head of the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University, believes UK universities need to rethink how they fund start-ups and release intellectual property.

Cambridge Computer Laboratory celebrates its 75th anniversary in April. One of the world's first computers – Edsac – was developed at the lab, which has also helped to form more than 200 successful start-ups.

Hopper (pictured), who helped establish Acorn Computers, says university start-up funding in the UK needs to change.

In his opinion, Edsac was very much a start-up. “The engineering was difficult, almost impossible. Potential users were not clear what it would be used for, and management – the university – hadn’t a clue what it would be used for," says Hopper. 

"But since those days, the department has had a strong flavour of applied work. The future of computing is technical innovation," he adds.

One way the lab celebrates its successes is listing its more than 200 successful start-ups on a board on the ground floor of the William Gates building that houses the computer laboratory.

Make IP more accessible

Hopper says the UK university system needs to focus on three areas to improve innovation and foster entrepreneurship.

The first area is about making intellectual property (IP) more easily accessible. At the moment, start-ups created in the university system are subject to roadblocks as universities try to profit from the IP. 

“The way things are, which may be a problem, is that universities tend to ask a very high price for intellectual property at a margin they think may make some extra money for themselves,” says Hopper.

This strategy is deterring many from seeking funding from universities or attempting to license the potentially valuable research produced. 

"Intellectual property left on the shelf is no good," he says. “What I’m suggesting, along with colleagues, is a volume strategy to get out as many companies as possible, with a small shareholding in each one – a shareholding that isn’t really negotiated, but follows rules.”

Rather than the university negotiating a 75% stake in the start-up, Hopper says university investment should be around 1%. “The lab makes more money from the benevolent donations the successful start-ups give it than it would if we tried to hold back an IP licence [to make money],” he says.

Change the way universities are measured

The second area of focus for Hopper is how universities are measured, which determines government funding and their global ranking as centres of excellence for innovation.  

Under the current system, universities are measured only on the breadth and depth of their research. The number of successful start-ups they have supported is not taken into consideration. 

Hopper says Cambridge Computer Laboratory's invention of the low-cost educational computer Raspberry Pi has not been recognised by the Research Excellence Framework.

Remove academic and commercial boundaries

The third area is the boundary between commerce and academia. He says the stereotype of all researchers wearing white coats and knowing nothing about anything commercial is plainly wrong: “Promotion on the academic side should include time in industry.”

Hopper suggests universities should be more flexible and encourage people to take risks. 

“Some of the best start-ups in the US are where people in university faculties choose to leave – but if it does not work the university accepts them back. It is very different here. If you go out [to form a start-up] and your publication record is wrecked, you have had it,” he says.

Hopper says London's Tech City, which is trying to emulate Cambridge's start-up success, is complementary. 

He sees huge value in what he calls the “Lab Corridor” – the 45-minute train link between Cambridge and London King's Cross. “It is no coincidence that Google’s new headquarters is at King’s Cross," he says.

Read more on Technology startups