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Are UK Universities Scuppering Our Chances Of Creating The Next Zuckerberg?

18/10/2016 17:35

Starting a tech company, for young people today, is the new rock n' roll. Many would rather be the next Mark Zuckerberg than Led Zep. After all, launch a Facebook, Instagram or Uber and mega wealth and stardom are all but guaranteed.

Now in the US, everything is geared up to give budding young tech entrepreneurs the confidence and support to succeed from a very early age - the universities and colleges are ruthlessly 'e-commercial' and know how to nurture and protect new ideas.

And protect, for the sake of this article, is the key word. When disruptive new ideas emerge stateside, the people driving them are provided, or furnished, with IP (intellectual property) expertise at the outset, or not far off.

It has to be so because IP -- or ensuring nobody rips off your idea -- is a critical part of any tech venture. If your business isn't protected in the right way, it's hard to get the money needed to scale.

In the UK, by contrast, universities could arguably do a lot more to support and protect the ideas being generated by our own tech entrepreneurs. And there are ideas aplenty.

Currently, for example, around one in four* students in the UK starts a business during university, with student businesses generating revenues of £478 million per year (average yearly turnover is £6,876)*. Technology is the key driver, as it enables students to create online businesses with ease.

But compared to the US, there's a problem. Only 10%* of UK university students plan to continue with their existing venture or start one upon graduation, many citing a lack of confidence and not receiving enough support as the primary reasons.

This raises critical questions about the advice and information students receive while at university. It also raises questions about the level of IP expertise students are being exposed to: are they really aware of the commercial potential of their ideas?

It would appear not. There will be exceptions, of course, but UK universities as a whole have a patchy track record when it comes to educating students about the importance of intellectual property. In a recent nationwide survey**:

• 19% of students had no idea whether there was any IP in their startup/project work
• 14% did not know how to protect it
• 46% of students did not even know who to talk to in the first instance

No wonder 60% of students in the same survey claimed that they have never looked or asked for information about IP or its protection during their time at university. This is a huge flaw in the system, as it means they have never been exposed to the true potential of their ideas.

So what's the solution? How can we compete with the US? For me, it's simple enough: UK universities have to put IP education at the top of their enterprise agenda. One way to do this potentially, is to establish a network of IP advice/information centres at each university delivering a nationwide service with uniform standards across the UK.

Each of these centres would provide free and basic face-to-face IP advice to student start-ups, as well as present seminars and lectures to the rest of the university community in an effort to raise awareness. These centres would also forge strong links with the venture and seed capital companies that help turn the all-important ideas coming through into reality.

Because if the UK truly wants to compete on the global tech stage, it needs to be better at turning ideas into reality. And IP is at the heart of this.

*Source: YouthSight on behalf of Santander UK - November 2015
**Source: University IP Policy: Perception and Practice. How students and staff understand intellectual property policy at their HEI - July 2016

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