University SPIN-OFFS: From myth to reality

Probably the hardest concept to explain beyond the technology transfer arena, both within and outside the university, is that of spin-offs associated with research centres. Typical questions and comments made when the topic crops up in conversation include variations on the following: “Why do civil servants create companies?”, “Is it legal?”, “It’s unfair that researchers make a lot of money from spin-offs”, or more complex ones such as “Spin-offs take knowledge and human capital away from research centres”. At CD6, which is a member of CIT UPC, we have a different view.

The spin-offs that I know of are – mainly at the UPC and outside of it, and of course there are exceptions to the model – an exemplary act of social responsibility by courageous researchers. These are people for whom it is not enough to write papers with public R&D funds. People who focus their developments on market needs. Who develop technologies and capabilities that, either intentionally or by pure coincidence, provide such a good solution to a real problem that someone within or outside the research team puts money from their own savings into the project to market and sell it, despite knowing that they are likely to lose out. People who want to transfer the technology they have developed, with full awareness of what they are doing, on the basis of technological capabilities. Who return to society, through taxes and job creation, all of the money provided for the research. Who help to keep trained technicians with highly specific and valuable skills close to research centres. If it were not for spin-offs, these technicians would have to look for jobs in which the contribution they can make is generally well below their abilities. On the subject of money, experience shows that the idea of making a lot of it through spin offs should be considered an optimistic initial hypothesis, to put it mildly.

Nevertheless, since 2003 ten companies had been founded out of CD6, that is, one company per year on average. They have focused on areas ranging from sports-related technologies to motor control systems. Each has its own, singular history. Some have been promoted by senior researchers, others by younger researchers. Some are purely spin-offs (arising from knowledge generated by the center’s research), others are start-ups (based on knowledge accumulated by the center in the development of projects). Some have already folded, others have just started out, and several are already consolidated. Unfortunately, very few have generated new spin-offs, for example to move into specific markets or to form alliances with strategic partners and thus separate technologies. Their combined revenue in 2012 was 6 million euros. They created 32 jobs and entered 19 countries, on the basis of their knowledge and technological research. They returned to society the resources that had enabled them to develop the technologies that we are now trying to market.

The best thing that we have discovered is that, far from reducing the activity and content of a research center, spin-offs increase it. The researchers involved grow personally and professionally, regardless of the success or failure of the project. Through their distributors, they access international markets that we would never have entered as CD6. They keep us in touch with the market, and help us to define the center’s strategy, detect opportunities and develop them. They attract and retain talent. They position us in corporate environments that enable us to obtain new projects and guide business in general. In some cases, they contract our services for some of their R&D activity, creating relationships that are naturally are long-term and enhance the center’s stability.

Therefore, at CD6, the creation of companies has enabled us to establish what is known as an enterprising environment, which we have added to with a cluster on a specific area, the SECPhO. The enterprising environment is nourished by and grows around the center, differentiating it and making it more prestigious. Each entity establishes different kinds of relations with the others. There is still a long way to go, particularly in terms of the recognition of entrepreneurs’ efforts and the systematization of the process, on the basis of successful models used elsewhere. However, over time we have discovered that entrepreneurship is a bug that is catching…

Santiago Royo
Director Centre for Sensors, Instruments and Systems Development (CD6 UPC) CIT UPC Member Centre

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