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Return on Investment in Innovation: Implications for Institutions and National Agencies*

. The Journal of Technology Transfer 31 (4): 403--414 (July 2006)

Abstract

Commercial success in universities in the USA and Canada has resulted in many other countries taking steps to emulate this performance and major technology transfer and commercialisation support programmes have been launched in UK, Europe, Australia, Japan and many other countries—including South Africa. Unrealistic expectations have, however, been generated by the spectacular successes of a relatively few institutions and it is not always realised that the success from commercialisation is proportional to the magnitude of the investment in research. Without a well funded, high quality research system, it is not possible for technology transfer to make any significant contribution to economic development. The possible economic returns to higher education institutions from commercialisation of research can be estimated using international benchmarks. This forecast uses a combination of an institutional return on investment model and a simple economic projection. The model is generic and can be adapted for use in any institution. As more data becomes available from local (and international) sources, the model will be refined to give better estimates. The model is dynamic and shows, quantitatively, why it can take up to 10 years for an institution, and 20 years nationally, to attain a positive rate of return from an investment in research and technology transfer. The model enables the long-term impact of policy decisions, in an institution and nationally, to be examined and alternative scenarios explored. The performance of individual institutions is, however, highly variable and unpredictable. This is even for those institutions that are comparable in size and maturity. A large portfolio of patents and licences is required to give a reasonable probability of positive returns. This may be possible at a national level, but is problematic in smaller institutions—and smaller countries. Because the benefits of the innovation system are captured largely at national level, with institutions having a high uncertainty, public sector support to reduce the institutional risk is necessary to assist institutions to make the necessary investments. Technology transfer is of course only one element of the overall research and innovation value chain. All elements must be functioning effectively to derive the economic and social benefits from research. In addition to a strong research system, adequate incentives must exist to encourage academics to participate, particularly with regard to the crucial initial step of invention disclosure. After disclosure, sufficient institutional capacity must be in place to take an idea, evaluate it, protect the intellectual property appropriately and then seek a path to commercialisation through either licensing or start-up company formation.

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