Broudie Houlette: research and innovation, great source of well paid British jobs
Broudie Houlette: research and innovation, great source of well paid British jobs

The Valley of Death is an expression used to describe the black hole in which a lot of research ends up in.

Many researchers get stuck in the Valley of Death, not having the tools, skills or financial backing to ‘spin out’ – marketise – their research into viable products and businesses. I will be focusing on how the Americans avoid the Valley of Death as one of the best in the league tables for efficiency of research and marketisation.

This Valley of Death is a deadweight for any economy and the UK is no exception on this front. As referred in an earlier blog post on ‘Help to Innovate’, there was an important report published by the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology committee aptly called ‘the Valley of Death’ which goes in depth about the problems of marketising UK research and the black hole in which many viable discoveries get sucked into.

The UK has some of the best research in the world, consistantly ranking in the top 5 in the Scientific American’s annual State of the World’s Research report and in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD – essentially the Club of Developed Nations). Yet, the UK ranks always in the bottom half and sometimes worse for marketising research – with massive economic consequences – in terms of jobs not created and lost future tax revenues for the Treasury.

Ed Miliband has pointed out that IT in Britain is failing, pointing out rightfully to the need for more technology education and apprenticeships. The UK is also failing in retaining the skill base it has. While – and I base this on anecdotal evidence – there appears to be a trend for British researchers moving to the US and other jurisdictions to file patents for their research and to marketise and spin out there. This is a loss for the UK in many ways and a boon for those other jurisdictions.

Stable government agencies

Beyond the obvious policies that are in the media, such as easier visa procedures, better education and apprenticeships – there are other policies that could be implemented right now. We only need to look at why all these researchers and entrepreneurs are moving to the US.

First, is state support – contrary to popular belief, the US doesn’t always worship at the ‘alter of the free market’. In fact, the US has a very professional and relatively unchanging set of government agencies that fund and develop US research and start-ups. Whether it’s NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Centre for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health along with many others.

The US Government actively supports American R&D and is capable of poaching researchers here in the UK and other places with a more generous regime, lower start-up costs, a bigger market and more efficient patent systems. Here in the UK, funding bodies and regulators change from one government to the next, removing stability and long term organisational knowledge that is important in helping bring research to market.

Patent systems

Secondly, the US has a clearer and better affordable patent system. While the new European patent received some positive press and even after a flawed agreement on a unified patent system, patents are still too confusing in the UK and Europe, not to mention costly.

The breakup of the Patent Courts and the still convoluted structures about patent application and enforcement retract researchers taking risks and marketising research.

Enterprising post docs

Finally, there is enterprise training for PhDs. Many academic post docs in the sciences have little skills in business and even less knowledge about tax law, company registration, other obligations and in general what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

Bloomberg Businessweek (October 28-November 3, 2013) edition discusses and innovative American programme run by the NSF. The NSF Innovation Corps is a seven week programme that trains researchers to figure out if their research has commercial potential. It has been championed by Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and has seen its budget ramped up from $4.75 Million to $12.25 Million.

How it works is that researchers must put together a three person team, including a mentor. Each team accepted immediately gets $50,000 to pay for expenses, and they learn how to create a product and get it to market.

Could this programme work in the UK? I think so. It’s a ready-made programme that is easily copied and would require very little money from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and would have immediate impact on researchers looking to spin out. Incentivisation could continue further and have a large cash prize for the best team and help to bring to market for all selected teams.

Research and innovation should not be a party political issue. It is a source of good paying British jobs, it increases much needed revenue for the Treasury and will help sustain a virtuous circle of increasing skills and value in the marketplace.

[Fun Fact: the National Science Foundation has a budget of $7 billion annually – the same amount of the entire UK research budget.]

Brodie Houlette is a passionate advocate for science, encouraging young people to take up STEM subjects, and is a member of EU40

Why UK Researchers Move to America
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