Talking to Tom Hockaday about his tech transfer compendium.

Tom Hockaday, former chief executive of University of Oxford’s tech transfer office, has seen everything you could possibly expect to see in the innovation ecosystem – and some things you most likely would not (including an incident of environmental activists trying to burn down the TTO). That Hockaday, who was in charge of Oxford University Innovation (then Isis Innovation) from 2006 to 2016, chose to write a compendium on tech transfer – titled University Technology Transfer: What It Is and How to Do It – is hardly a surprise, therefore, though the idea only came to him after plans for a book to which he had originally been asked to contribute a chapter were dropped.

Hockaday told GUV: “I realised I had some 10,000 words and I did not want it to go to waste. I wanted to collect up everything I knew about this subject and share it with people to help.

“In the back of my mind was this idea that once I had done it, I would have my own compendium. I could store all of this information, forget it and then just go back to my book and say ‘oh right, that is how it works’.”

Hockaday knew much of the content he was going to put into the book, he said, and spent a lot time on planes coming up with the structure. That structure is interesting because – while the book can easily be read front to back – it is clearly written to allow readers to refer back to specific chapters and sections. Key information is repeated throughout separate chapters, not in an attempt to fill the pages but with a view of facilitating a reader’s understanding of the material without having to scour the index. The decision to structure the book as Hockaday did also underlines – for people who do read it all in one go – how interconnected the different parts of tech transfer are.

The structure works particularly well because the introduction could – and arguably should – be required reading for any policymaker as a “tech transfer for dummies” type summary of all the different parts that are involved in knowledge exchange. In fact, Hockaday makes no assumptions about the reader’s knowledge throughout and takes great care to explain even terms such as limited partners. Such sections may be safely skipped by a fund manager or head of TTO, but may indeed be welcome by stakeholders with less financial experience.

Three decades of experience mean Hockaday has strong, justified opinions that he is not afraid to share throughout the book – sometimes humorously (there is a particularly good joke opening chapter 11 asking how many researchers it takes to change a light bulb – the answer: “change?!”), sometimes cynically (in chapter five, he writes that “the privatisation of Imperial Innovations has been described politely as an interesting experiment”), often seriously (in chapter six he argues that “failure is not good; it is not good to fail. How you react to failure is the important thing. … You can learn without failing. A modest success can be put to one side and you can move on to the next thing.”)

Particularly with regards to Hockaday’s statement about Imperial Innovations (which eventually became Touchstone Innovations before a hostile takeover by commercialisation firm IP Group), it would be easy to dismiss this as hindsight being 20/20. But, Hockaday told GUV: “I was concerned about it at the time. You are either wholly owned or you are not. The minute you are not, you have divergence of shareholder interests. That is not to say it was only going to end up one way, at all. But from the moment you go from being 100%, owned by the university, to 99% or 90% or 80% – however much – even that first crack where you have divergent shareholder interests is a massive change.

“And then it is probably only going to go one way: down the money route, because the other shareholders are financially motivated. All of this happened at a particular time, in a particular place and played out over particular phases of UK and global economic activity, so it is very hard to isolate it, but that single point of being not wholly owned was clear to me from day one that that was not a good thing to do.”

Another firm that saw an unceremonious end was Woodford Investment Management, which collapsed after its portfolio struggled to provide returns to investors. There is an argument to be made that investors may have misunderstood the “patient” part of patient capital (the firm survived only five years), but Hockaday has nothing but respect for the firm’s founder, Neil Woodford.

In the book, Hockaday mentions Woodford’s work in helping to establish the concept of patient capital, but does not go into the collapse of the firm. Asked whether this was simply to do with the timing of writing the book, Hockaday stated: “No. I think what Woodford did with patient capital and what he did with supporting the opportunities that brilliant UK science presents to UK business and UK investors was really positive.

“The role he played in getting Oxford Sciences Innovation going as one of the founding investors was really positive. I can talk about the genuine positives of what he did in promoting patient capital, but the wrangling and financial management is just not a world I know.”

Hockaday is also not afraid of sharing cautionary tales closer to home, such as a somewhat surreal moment at Oxford when the TTO agreed to let in accountants hired by the university management. OUI had nothing to hide, Hockaday writes in chapter one, and thought it might gain insight into how to operate more efficiently, but it turned out the accountants were only interested in the TTO’s revenue streams because the university management had deemed OUI the most likely division to save the institution from financial deficit.

At several points throughout the book, Hockaday reinforces the idea that tech transfer is a people business – and often one with very good catering. Talking to GUV, he said: “The Autm conferences – and these days the PraxisAuril events are fantastic as well – in the mid-1990s were truly amazing. To be around that group of people who had such an in-depth understanding and grip on all of this and to learn from them was amazing.

“When I arrived in Oxford, Tim Cook was the boss and I learned huge amounts from him. We had a very good model and a very good understanding. We, and mainly Tim, thought through every aspect and wrote down detailed operating procedures and policies – justifications for why we did it the way we did. We did amend and evolve that, but it was that in-depth understanding that I managed to obtain from the tiniest details to the big picture.”

He stated: “It was that breadth that I wanted to get into the book.”

It is a challenge he has easily met.

The book is not, of course, merely a collection of anecdotes – where they are used, they serve the point of offering a real-world example for the policies Hockaday has developed over the years. He also dives into the history of tech transfer in the US and in the UK, helping to understand the current realities through historical context. Indeed, the book could easily be used as an instruction manual for a reader newly tasked with setting up a tech transfer office.

One of the mantras developed by Hockaday over the years that would come in handy for such a reader – “a university should be as generous as it can afford to be” – is explored in-depth in the book (and Hockaday previously applied that same point-of-view to Imperial College London’s Founder’s Choice program in a guest comment for GUV).

Policymakers in the UK like to float the idea of universities relying on “golden shares” – a stake that cannot be diluted by subsequent investors – rather than asking for a large percentage upfront. Hockaday cautions against this, writing in chapter three that while the approach might be used elsewhere, “international experience tells us that knowledge exchange will not thrive in a copycat culture”.

Asked where the concept of a university’s large generosity came from, Hockaday explained: “There has been a lot of debate – and this is comparing apples and pears – comparing Boston and Stanford to the UK, and there has been a lot of misinformation. The argument was slightly fatuous, but from that came a lot of understanding. That was one part of it.

“Then there was this question of what a university is trying to achieve from their tech transfer program. Is it money? What is the university’s actual objective in having a shareholding of any particular size?

“Another huge change was the Research Excellence Framework 2014 around impact – universities learned that impact is really important and tech transfer is a key part of that. Universities are finally learning that tech transfer itself is not about the money. Given that, why are universities fighting and struggling for large shares of these companies, when it does cause friction and difficulties? That is where the ‘be generous’ idea came from.

“Another point was, if you are interested in the money and you look at the amount you are likely to make from your founding shareholding, it is going to be diluted so much that you are fighting for something that will have no significant financial value. If you want to make money, you can have a follow-on or anti-dilution fund to maintain a position in what you think are the promising spinouts, and manage that for money.”

There is a caveat here, in that a tech transfer office may not have financial returns as its goal, but, as Hockaday notes in chapter 10, it actually is about the money “if the university wants to have a tech transfer resource to help it do the things it wants to do”.

Some statements made by Hockaday in the book seem obvious but are surprising to see spelled out nonetheless. One such instance is his declaration that it is “science first, commercialisation second”. Asked whether it was common for a tech transfer manager to acknowledge their secondary role in innovation, Hockaday said: “It should be common. I firmly believe we exist to help researchers. We only exist because researchers in universities are doing really exciting science, creating knowledge, new information, new opportunities. Only then do we come along, help package it and transfer it.

“Of course, you can say it is more circular than that. The existence of tech transfer activity helps stimulate some researchers to think differently about their research and the way they want to go about it. One example from Oxford was researchers in the engineering department who actively shifted the focus of their research towards cleantech. That was not to do with us, it was because researchers inherently want to do stuff that is useful and address global challenges. Sometimes where you see commercialisation go wrong is where the tech transfer people are overplaying their hand – that is why I emphasise so much that we would not exist if it was not for the researchers.”

A core theme of the book, unsurprisingly, is the idea that sometimes, but not always, the commercial route is the best way to see the benefits of research to society. Hockaday said: “Existence of tech transfer activities has helped academics to understand that, appreciate it and recognise it. So, tech transfer does not impact on the type of research they do at all, but helps them understand that this is one channel by which their research can have impact.”

To the great joy of this reviewer, Hockaday also dedicates sections of the book to underlining how important both internal and external communications are. Not all tech transfer offices are good at this and when asked why this might be, Hockaday explained: “A lot of people grow up with a fairly low opinion of the press, because of the pretty horrendous behaviour of a tiny sector of the tabloid press. There is a weariness of engaging with the press because you do not know what is going to happen, you do not know what they are going to write.”

He continued: “But people have to get over that. If you are telling a good story, we are all on the same side. We want to promote the amazing stories of the technologies that are being transferred, the impact that has, the products and services that that leads to. We want to promote tech transfer as a good activity, but we also want to promote ourselves into our universities and promote our universities going out.

“Engaging with local press is really important. It helps position the university in its immediate locality. It keeps you clean, in a way, because if you are doing something wrong and a journalist picks up on it and exposes it, well, fair enough – what were you doing, why were you doing it wrong?”

Indeed, Hockaday notes in the book that a tech transfer office and the university’s press office should be best friends. Such attempts are not always successful from the get-go, including at Oxford, where, he acknowledged, “20 years ago, we would feed stuff to the university press office and, for perfectly justifiable reasons, they were not interested. So, we began to do a lot of press ourselves.

“Nowadays, the relationship has completely changed, they have really close links and everybody is working together. But for any university in any city, it is important to make friends with the local journalists, because there are great stories to be told. We knew that if we had a story in the Oxford press, the academics would read it at home and their families would read it.”

The chapter policymakers in particular might not enjoy is the ninth, where Hockaday lists, to great effect, several pages of government reports to illustrate his point that the next person asked to pen a government review should decline. He concludes that “the great advantage of having a review underway is that you do not need to do anything until the results have been published and assessed, and so on,” writing however that “the impressive variety of reports does show that the government is taking the subject seriously, even if it does not know what to do.”

But, he specified to GUV: “I do not want the message to be that there have been a lot of reports and no action, because there has been a lot of action. The sheer number of reports is problematic in the sense that more effort should go into implementing the actions of previous reports. I picked out Waldegrave, Lambert and MacMillan, and along these you can see some threads of the importance of being really good at basic science and better at commercialisation.”

Asked whether this was a particularly British issue, he pondered: “I do not know that much about it globally but I would not be surprised. But when you think about government support, the Higher Education Innovation Fund is the envy of the world for a couple of reasons – first, the continuity from about 2000 and second, the scale of it. Substantial research universities in the UK are receiving big chunks of cash to support this activity.”

The UK has also been lucky in its continuity of science ministers, Hockaday argues in the book, an important factor in ensuring the minister understands the game and can competently implement changes.

The book was written before the pandemic, but almost everything still applies in the new normal if “the huge stresses of Covid-19 from a purely financial point of view” make it all that little bit more difficult, Hockaday said.

He continued: “Universities are going to have less money, governments are going to have less money. The same arguments apply that from a UK point of view investing in early-stage research is still a really good thing to do. Let’s just hope it continues because it is so important to fund research and fund the Higher Education Innovation Fund. We are right in the middle of the implementation phase of the Knowledge Exchange Framework and the Knowledge Exchange Concordat. I think the Concordat is a good thing because it promotes discussion about the issues of tech transfer up to the highest level of the university.”

The financial pressures could prove particularly tricky, as Hockaday writes in chapter 11 that “TTOs may disappear where the university sees no value in the IP arising from its research activities and does not understand the non-commercial benefits of the commercial route” – non-commercial benefits, he adds, include being part of the local community, generating stories to show the application of research to society, promoting entrepreneurship and attracting staff keen on commercial tech transfer.

Hockaday – who now runs his own consultancy, Technology Transfer Innovation, out of Oxford – does not see himself return to lead another tech transfer office.

He told GUV: “I had this line years and years ago: three strikes and you are out, or three universities and you are done. I did University College London, University of Bristol and University of Oxford. I was at Oxford for 16 years and I was CEO for 10.

“I realised three years before I left that this is going to end, so let’s plan for that. Universities are wonderful and complex and confusing organisations. If you take on a role like that you have to invest three to five years – could I really invest in coming to terms with the complexity of another place? And Oxford is a pretty hard act to follow. So yes, I planned to have a break and be independent for a few years – and I think it will stay like that. I always say: plan A is not to get a job.”

Hockaday’s plan A has given us this book, so there will be no argument from us that he should change his stance. The book is a must-read for anyone working in or remotely interested in tech transfer. It may not contain a neatly drawn roadmap to building a successful operation (though it does have charts), but all the information you could possibly need is in there and easily accessible. If a commercialisation expert could ever have a magnum opus, this is it.

University Technology Transfer: What It Is and How to Do It is available now from Johns Hopkins University Press. Go buy it, it is worth every penny.

– Disclaimer: GUV received a complimentary review copy of the book.