Universities better at innovation than they are given credit for
10 October 2012
Research and innovation policy is based on myths and false ideas, according to Professor Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand at CIRCLE, the centre for innovation research at Lund University. Her own research has been misinterpreted and used as a weapon in the debate.“People draw the conclusion that Swedish findings and patents do not create jobs and growth to the same extent as in other countries, such as the USA. In fact, the opposite is probably true!”
It was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that people started to talk about “the Swedish academic paradox”. The debaters built their arguments on a couple of studies by Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand and her colleague Staffan Jacobsson at Chalmers University of Technology. They had studied new and spin-off companies in the technology sector and their effects in the form of new jobs and growth.
“One of the studies showed that research companies hived off from universities did not have the same positive development as product-based companies hived off from large private companies. The findings were over-interpreted; the study became fuel for the debate and was used in a way that we had never intended”, says Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand.
The idea of ‘the Swedish academic paradox’ had a big impact and has influenced research policy in the years since. Despite the fact that, in the view of Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand, there is no empirical basis for the existence of the paradox.
“Research companies have a different development curve. If you follow the companies we studied over a longer period of time, the differences disappear and the research companies show equally good development.”
Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand has dug deep into the debate and the footnotes of research policies:
“I see our studies cited in support of the assumption that the conversion of Swedish technology research is poor! It’s absurd.”
She has tried to break down the myths surrounding her own report, among other things with an article in the weekly newspaper Ny teknik in the spring, where Åsa and her co-authors claimed that Swedish research policy is not evidence-based.
Contrary to the ‘paradox’, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Swedish research comes to use to a great extent.
“There are loads of good ideas being pumped out into business. The majority of the technology purchased in Sweden is from university spin-offs.
However, the system we have that gives the researchers and not the institutions the rights to their research findings means that the flow of innovations is not as visible and measureable.”
Her studies of Chalmers show this. Researchers are under a lot of pressure to collaborate with the business sector, not least for financial reasons.
University researchers enter into collaborative agreements with large companies. For fear that the companies would otherwise pull out and withdraw their financing, the researchers often relinquish their rights to the results of the research collaboration – the results become a trade secret.
“In Sweden, researchers can do this, thanks to the law on intellectual property rights of academic staff. In the USA, where the universities have the rights to research findings, it is easier to measure the commercialisation of research.”
This does not mean to say that Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand wants to abolish the Swedish law; she thinks it facilitates collaboration between researchers and business. However, those who make decisions on research and innovation policy need to better understand that a lot of technological progress is generated in these collaborations with major companies and in the many spin-off companies created by university researchers.
“At Chalmers, 69 per cent of patents were ascribed to large companies that researchers collaborated with. Only 22 per cent were patents taken by university companies.”
If the innovation capacity of the universities is to be assessed, they must be studied over a long period of time and the right things measured, continues Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand. A comparison that she has made between Oxford and Chalmers shows this. England does not have the same law on intellectual property rights of academic staff that Sweden has and Oxford is best in the UK at starting successful spin-off companies. However, Chalmers starts significantly more small companies than Oxford and its contribution to society is not to be sneezed at either, says Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand.
“The spin-offs that Chalmers employees have started often only have very few staff and don’t grow very much. Yet they are nevertheless important. They have as many researchers as staff members – a couple of thousand jobs – and a total turnover of SEK 1 billion a year. Add to that many researchers’ involvement on different boards of directors and the growing spin-off companies that are started by researchers who leave the University.
I don’t call that research in the ivory tower!”
It is basically sensible that researchers do not spend more time on enterprise than they already do, in the view of Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand.
“If you are to be a world-leading researcher, you should get your head down and work at it!”
A model for success seems to be the combination of research ideas and external entrepreneurs; this has been shown in a project that she is currently working on.
“Large companies sponsor former employees to set up small university companies. These companies have a tendency to grow very quickly.”
If one is to understand the innovative capacity of Swedish technological research, it would almost be necessary to ‘earmark’ ideas and follow their path into Swedish industry.
“A private company works with one or a couple of products. A university company sells knowledge and ideas and can have up to 20 ‘products’. They don’t grow very much, but those who buy ideas from them do!”
Text: Britta Collberg
This text was first published in the Lund University Magazine - LUM.
Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand has been a professor at CIRCLE since 2011 and leads research on entrepreneurship and innovation. She also has links to Halmstad University and has been a visiting professor at Chalmers University of Technology.