One of the oldest models for technology transfers from public research organisations (PROs) to industry is where a company directly licenses innovation, with no prior R&D collaboration having taken place. However, this has been overtaken in popularity by R&D collaborations – where R&D contracts are followed by licenses. This is because, as technology becomes increasingly complex, the gap is widening between basic research and industrial application. This means that the original basic research tends to need further applied development before it can be of any use to industry. It is in this later stage of applied development that collaborations between PROs and industry through contract research are of the upmost importance in order to ensure that industry needs are met.
Moreover, many economic and institutional studies show that during contract research, tacit knowledge flows between PROs and industry, and vice versa, in an interactive and bidirectional way.
Further, they underline that the exchange of tacit knowledge can be even more valuable than the licensed patent itself. Indeed, several surveys of CEOs of industrial companies show that they rank collaborative agreements with PROs which are followed by licensing as their preferred technology transfer tool, compared to licenses where no collaboration takes place.
This does not mean that patents and licenses have little importance in technology transfers. On the contrary, as highlighted in the relevant literature, the principal role of patents is to structure the R&D process from basic research to the market, and to organize the various collaborations that take place along the way. In other words, patents support – through contract research – tacit knowledge exchanges between public research and industry.
Recent worldwide trends in technology transfers between PROs and industry show that therefore several of the most innovative countries are willing to reinforce their public applied research in this way. The model for this is Germany, where public applied research is strong and involves significant collaboration with industry via contract research, with these collaborations being structured by patents, and where there is a good pairing between public basic research and public applied research.
Indeed, Germany seems to be the focus for decision makers from various countries which are trying to improve their innovation model. This is for example the case for the USA and the UK that have decided to reinforce their public applied research at the interface between basic research and industry, seeking to emulate, even partly, the German model.
Countries would do well to pay attention to this analysis when defining their global innovation policies, especially regarding the pairing between public basic research and public applied research and the rate of public applied research as a total of public research.
Michel Neu is International Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer Expert at the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA); www.cea.fr
This article first appeared in Intellectual Asset Management (IAM) magazine issue N°70, March/April 2015, published by The IP Media Group. To view the issue in full, please go to www.iam-magazine.com.