University-Driven Economic Growth

In a recent report entitled “Encouraging a British Invention Revolution,” the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, Sir Andrew Witty, highlights the importance of universities to economic growth. He notes that “the research strength of the UK’s universities is an enormous national asset,” and that they have great potential to generate new companies and whole new industries.

There is no doubt that universities can drive economic growth, not just in the UK but worldwide. Universities are the source of a constant stream of innovations and ideas. While university innovations are often early-stage and require further development to become market-ready, they are also often game changing. This is due to the fact that university researchers have greater freedom to explore new areas and breakthrough research, without having to worry about showing an immediate return on investment.

In a BBC News article about this report, Dr. Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of research universities, cites the billions generated by university discoveries, and emphasizes how important it is to the economy that “groundbreaking discoveries make it all the way from idea to implementation and from prototype to profit.” This highlights the importance of technology transfer in bridging the gap between university research and industry.

However, Witty also notes that without well-focused funding, organization, and collaboration to transform competitive technologies into real business, there is a risk that these opportunities can be lost or delayed, or that British inventions would end up being used to build foreign industries.

New Funding Model  

Witty proposes a new government funding model focused on what he calls “Arrow Projects,” key technology platforms that have strong market potential. The projects would be run by a consortium of partners including universities, industry, and local and central government.

The use of such focused funding programs can help small and mid-size businesses take advantage of opportunities presented by university research. Typically, it is larger companies that have the financial and human resources to be able to take advantage of early-stage university technologies. With additional support in terms of funding and with collaborations among multiple partners to develop technology, the huge potential of university research can be unlocked to SMEs, which could have a significant positive impact on economic growth.

Proactive Approach

The report also calls upon universities to take responsibility for a “third mission” of facilitating economic growth, in addition to the usual missions of teaching and research. An important part of this third mission should be to “seek out…potentially innovative SMEs and to support them with technology, expertise, talent and know-how.”

These challenges become even more difficult in developing economies, due to the lower capacity of local industries to adopt and commercialize university research. For this reason, here at TTI, we offer extra support to inventors to further develop their technologies to the proof-of-concept stage to improve their market readiness. On the other hand, we also provide support to local companies from technical, legal, and business points of view to help them adopt KAUST research results. KAUST has explicitly made economic development part of its mission since its inception, and has made great strides with a number of initiatives to fulfill its mission.


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