Best practices for university-healthcare partnerships: Lessons from Oxford

In this episode of Conversations in Healthcare, Mike Ward speaks with Dr. Phil Clare, Deputy Director, Research Services, Knowledge Exchange and Engagement at the University of Oxford, about the process of translating academic research into new healthcare products and services.



Mike Ward: A key component of that ecosystem is the fundamental research that’s conducted within academia. Indeed, many of the technologies and products that shape modern society, even outside the healthcare system, were probably first conceived within a university.

The process of translating such insights into new products and services that provide benefit to wider society is one of the missions of many university knowledge exchange and tech transfer offices.

To get some insight into how that process actually works, I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Phil Clare, who is the Deputy Director, Research Services, Knowledge Exchange and Engagement at the University of Oxford, one of the world’s leading universities. Phil, thanks very much for joining me.


Phil Clare: Absolutely, Mike.


Mike: As I mentioned in the introduction, the role of tech and knowledge transfer activities is to translate university research into products and services that have the potential to provide societal benefits. I thought it might be helpful if you could first describe the University of Oxford’s vision and mission for knowledge transfer and exchange and give us some insight into this with the breadth of opportunities that you are dealing with.


Phil: Sure. Oxford, like all universities in the United Kingdom, is a charity, and we’re focused on public benefit through our research and education and teaching through our knowledge exchange. If I sum up what we do, it’s to work through all of the ways in which the university can make a difference to the world. Make a difference, culturally, socially and economically. Some of the mechanisms that we use are very commercial, such as creating new businesses and licensing technologies.

Some of them are much more about engagement with different public audiences or with the policymakers. Some things are broadcast widely. Some things are protected under intellectual property. Some things are managed through collaborations with other organizations where we co-create knowledge as part of a research program and then share that directly with the person we’re working with. There are many, many mechanisms that we use, but all of them are aimed at maximizing the impact of our research.


Mike: With such a wealth of research that is generated within the university on a continuous basis, how do you go about prioritizing programs, projects or assets?
Phil: The real answer is you just can’t. There’s so much that comes up. What we try to do within the various aspects of our work is develop processes and develop support mechanisms of education that will allow academics to achieve their individual goals. If what they really want to do is reach a wide public audience, a public engagement with research activities is designed to give them the tools, to help them evaluate what they do and to help them find ways to reach out to larger audiences for their research.

Equally, if somebody has a commercial opportunity, they’ll talk to Oxford University Innovation, our wholly-owned subsidiary that does the technology transfer and they will look at the market. They will look at the possibilities for patenting and they will reach a decision with the academic on what the commercial possibilities might be and what routes to market they might take.

And there’s a whole other range of opportunities in between that we try and facilitate through networks, through training and through engaging with other partners. This makes prioritization really difficult. In the end, sometimes with prioritization, the endorsement comes from external partners. If you’ve got something that’s available for licensing, people want to license it and then the markets have spoken. It’s the same way with spin-out companies. If something is suitable for a spin-out company and investors express an interest, then you take it forward. The colleagues should look into the commercial end, understand those market opportunities and use that to prioritize. In the end, what we don’t want to ever do is deny a piece of groundbreaking research the opportunity to have that impact.

What we’re doing is investing in different channels and in different mechanisms. Let me give you one example. At the moment, we’re looking to increase the number of social enterprises that come from the university. So historically, technology transfer 20 years ago was all about financial return, but actually the university in a review seven years ago, explicitly said that financial return is always secondary to maximizing impact. And what that’s led to is growth in businesses being founded, who are aiming at social outcomes.

I think we created 10 in the last 18 months. These require access to a different sort of investor. Investors who are looking for a societal as well as an economic return. We’re working with 11 other universities in the United Kingdom to raise a fund collectively to invest in those sorts of businesses. This is an area of growth, and there are many people who are not very interested in making money, but are very interested in making a difference. We want to facilitate all of these opportunities.


Mike: Could you give us an example of a societal enterprise? How the whole concept was created and then delivered?
Phil: Small hand pumps. It turns out that with the application of sophisticated AI, you can improve the situation for communities that rely on pumped water from the ground in very rural communities in developing countries. You can improve the healthcare through improving your ability to manage these mechanical devices. You go to the dry parts of rural Africa, where the ground water is not fit to drink, and the only way to get healthy water is pumped from deep wells.


It turns out if you put a sensor on the handle of one of these pumps which is tuned using AI techniques to understand what vibrations in the mechanism are predictive of an imminent failure, it means you can call somebody out to fix the pump before it breaks.


The trouble there is if that hand pump breaks, which an entire community relies upon, it can take a month to fix that pump, by which time everybody has been forced to go to polluted water sources and there are bad healthcare outcomes for the community. It turns out if you put a sensor on the handle of one of these pumps which is tuned using AI techniques to understand what vibrations in the mechanism are predictive of an imminent failure, it means you can call somebody out to fix the pump before it breaks. That means that you can reduce the amount of time it takes you to fix that pump to a time which will allow people not to be forced to use dirty water for drinking.

With a little modification, you can also send a signal to the company in the city that’s responsible for sending the engineers out to fix the pump so that they know it’s going to break even before the people using it. In experiments, that cut down the fixing time from 30 days to 24 hours, which is a tremendous outcome. This was a collaboration between Oxford computer scientists and Oxford engineers. That was turned into a social enterprise. It was funded through crowdfunding – the university has OxReach, its own crowdfunding platform, in order to set this up as a social business.

As an aside,  a colleague discovered that she could tell if men, women or children were operating the pump based on different signals. This turned into a new research project to understand what the sociological uses of those hand pumps were, and which sections of the community were the ones that ended up going out to pump the water. That’s one example of something that was crowdfunded from a very broad community to set up a social business based on some quite sophisticated technology emerging from the university.


Mike: How proactive are you in seeking those sorts of collaborations? Or are they initiated by potential partners? In that case, was this an idea that you thought, oh, we can think of an application, or was it that somebody came with a problem and then you realized that there was something that you had access to that might help?
Phil Clare:                                    


The idea and the application of the idea was driven by the academic groups who recognized a problem and set about solving it. And a lot of research in those areas is directed towards a particular solution. So how do we build those collaborations? I mean, we have many collaborations with industry. Oxford has the largest volume of industry collaboration for funding of any United Kingdom university. Some of those are very long-standing collaborations that have been going on for decades.
Our job is to create knowledge that’s used or made available, not hidden or locked away. I think a cornerstone of everything that we do is that things are published or made available for the world for use or just for sharing.                Where do they come from? Sometimes a company with a problem will approach the university or, even better, a company with a longstanding interest in their research will approach the university and from that a collaboration will develop. Sometimes somebody can bump into an academic and discover they have a mutual interest. Sometimes someone will read a paper and phone up. Sometimes we will target particular areas of expertise where we’re looking to build activities and we’ll go and speak to companies who might be interested. So especially as colleagues in the university act as that interface between the academic community and external businesses. I think our aspiration is very much moving towards not just research contracts but long-term partnerships.

We’ve got long-term partnerships with companies like Rolls-Royce, SCG,  and Novo Nordisk, who just moved into a laboratory on our campus, and we see that as the future. Companies who want to invest, and not just money, but time and people and building a collaboration. Those are the things which seem to be the most productive in producing mutual benefits. I think the transfer of knowledge through interaction with people is far more effective than exchange of money and writing things down. I think our aspiration is for deep, long-term strategic partnerships with our corporate partners. Often of course, that’s the channel for commercialization.

If you have a long-standing partnership and ideas which are capable of being commercialized or emerging from that partnership, then the obvious channel for taking some stock to the market is through the partner. What we don’t ever do is sort of leave things on the shelf, if you like. Our job is to create knowledge that’s used or made available, not hidden or locked away. I think a cornerstone of everything that we do is that things are published or made available for the world for use or just for sharing. Obviously academics’ careers are built on their publications. Even within our kind of corporate relationships, we always include the mechanisms that will allow academics to publish, even if our corporate partners are patenting or we’re patenting things in order to more easily attract investment, the outcomes will still be published and made available.


Mike: You mentioned publication because historically, that’s how university researchers and their efforts have been recognized. Are there any instruments where, for example, being involved in one of these societal enterprises or helping create that, that it might not necessarily deliver a publication, but there is still some sort of recognition of the value that it provides to the university?
Phil: Yeah. I think so. I mean, many of our enterprises come as a consequence of, or as part of the delivery of research. So as an institution, excellence in our research and excellence in our teaching is at the heart of what we do. Most of what we do is driven by that excellent research that sits behind it. That’s not to say, the caricature of technology transfer is we do some great research and something fascinating randomly appears, and we think, oh gosh, what could we do with that? I think it’s a lot more thoughtful than that. Research projects will have the impact pathway designed in from the beginning.

When they start doing a piece of research, most academics will also consider what the application, the center of that research, is. We’ll start to engage with partners who are going to be part of that application from day one. The idea of this sort of linear notion of idea to market, it’s always a lot more complicated than that. That’s really what my academic colleagues will continue to push.


Mike: When you’re creating these collaborations, what are the challenges or the issues, or the most common hurdles that you have to overcome when you’re constructing a collaboration?
Phil: There’s often a couple of hurdles. Companies and universities are very different, particularly when you’re dealing with corporate partners. External organizations and universities are different and have different drivers. We are a charity and public benefits are at the heart of what we do and the ability to speak freely and the ability to publish are the heart of the academic mission. Sometimes the desire to publish or the desire to manage intellectual property in a particular way is something that is not such a bone of contention, but a point of discussion that always needs to be properly managed between universities and companies.

I think for a long time in the United Kingdom, we’ve had the Lambert agreements, which many companies and universities use to enable research contracts to be established. Even if people don’t like the agreements themselves, what is useful about them is that they established some of the principles. They highlight some of the core challenges they need to overcome. Any contract with a company is going to see the mechanism for managing intellectual property, a mechanism for publication, a mechanism for commercialization and a mechanism for managing the project. Those sorts of things tend to be built in. A lot depends on the project.

If it’s a piece of research which is essentially one in which a company is bringing us some of their ideas and some of their intellectual property and asking us to contribute our work to their on-going program, then whatever we design is going to be biased towards delivery of a program, which is going to be part of their work. If on the other hand, we’re doing some fundamental research and have a long-standing research program, and a company comes to participate in that, then we would expect them to contribute to part of the university’s long-term activity. What they gain might be knowledge, it might be access, but will not be control or ownership.

There’s a whole bunch of nuances there and you build them on a case-by-case basis. In the end, it comes down to understanding what everybody wants out of a relationship, not assuming for a university that you know what industry goals are without asking and vice versa; not assuming that all universities are the same. Universities are different – they have different characters and they care about different things. For a company talking to a university, I would make sure that I asked questions and listened to what the key priorities are. For any university talking to a company, I would say the same thing, because not all companies are the same either.

Those are the sort of issues that often come up in contractual discussions. What does the ongoing project management look like? How do we make sure that we are comparing notes on a regular basis? What’s the sort of the structure of the management committee of a project or program, depending on how big it is? Who’s on it and are they committed to success?

Those are the sorts of things which also need to be part of any project proposal. Those are the sorts of things which support long-term partnerships. If you have a long-term partnership, we then talk to each of those not going to last. If you’ve got a long-term partnership with a good structure where people regularly discuss the direction and strategy of a project, then you’re far more likely to succeed.


This is an edited excerpt from the transcript. Visit here to listen to the full episode. 

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