It’s a challenge that universities around the world grapple with, namely creating and maintaining the best structure to develop good bits of their intellectual property into saleable products.
Universities, at least in New Zealand, are never terribly flush with money, and turning an idea into income takes capital up front and varying lengths of time, to maybe, realise a return.
It’s no different in Wellington, and changes are afoot at Victoria University’s commercialisation vehicle, Viclink, whose flagship success is the maker of small scale nuclear magnetic resonance products, Magritek.
The university’s going through discussions with Viclink staff, looking at ways to be more efficient says VUW vice chancellor Neil Quigley. Some of the changes will involve staff losses, though Quigley is at pains to point out that the university is keeping its commercialisation arm.
“Over the past few years Viclink’s built up a variety of back office support functions such as marketing, I.T. and other things,” Quigley says. “It’s clear that’s not the efficient way to do it.”
A reintegration of the back office to the university will probably take place (final decision is still to be made), and “the intent is to ensure we still get as much money into actual commercialisation per se,” he says.
The changes may include a scaling back of a chief executive role to a managing director type for a couple of days a week for the wholly owned subsidiary which operates as a separate company. Though it is not a hugely high risk enterprise, Quigley says it makes sense to keep Viclink as a separate entity for accounting and other reasons.
VUW’s challenge is reflected around the world by universities. Some varsities keep all commercialisation in-house, through to others shopping it all out to a contracting third party who retain a share of any equity for creating successful businesses.
Some universities are also able to cross-subsidise capital requirements and commercialisation with other functions such as contract research. This is the model used by Auckland University’s UniServices.
However VUW has a separate contract research segment that isn’t aligned to Viclink.
Why should Victoria bother about commercialisation at all?
“We’ve got valuable IP, and its sensible to be thinking of how to maximise the value from that,” Quigley says.
“The question is what model do we use, and the point at which we plan for the university to exit profitably and sell out.”