It is impossible to imagine a country without its own economy, without the capacity to build roads and safe bridges, to design energy-efficient buildings or industrial plants with their own production lines, smart electricity grids and energy capabilities, or optimised management platforms. We recognised the key role of TalTech as a research and development (R&D) partner, an educational and research base, and a developer of its alumni who become experts and of academic offspring.
Kaja Kuivjõgi, Head of the Rectorate Strategy Office | Photos: Mattias Kitsing
TalTech has set a goal in its development plan to be an important engine of economy. We have the advantage of having educational programmes and research projects in both technical and engineering disciplines as well as ICT and business competencies combined in the same university. This allows us to offer comprehensive solutions for businesses and the public sector.
What does the public expect from an economic engine?
Human capital, from students to experts and professors, is at the heart of everything. Adding value to people takes place at universities. Jakob Hurt has said: ‘If we cannot become great in numbers, let us become great in spirit.’ As Raivo Vare, the moderator of discussions at the think-tank, underlined – the advantage of Estonia is its ability to adapt quickly as well as its people who keep up with innovation. We need the will to work together and build bridges in all dimensions.
Some snippets from the debate:
- Sille Kraam, Deputy Secretary General at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, noted that the role of a university is to prepare the society for change. This statement contains a huge challenge for the university – to define the problems of the future, to search for and find solutions to them, and to explain the paths and options for development in order to be ready to meet the challenges of the future.
- Madis Toomsalu, Head of LHV, stressed that the university is expected to be more proactive, transparent, visible, and to communicate wisely.
- According to Academician Mart Saarma, patenting and licensing should be considered equally important to publishing and citability. Therefore, a mindset and attitude to identify and be aware of intellectual property (IP) is crucial. Raising awareness and changing attitudes is a major goal in its own right and a first step towards a more research-intensive economy. TalTech needs to create the necessary instruments for commercialising its IP in a smart way and decide how to attract smart money for commercialising knowledge.
Currently, TalTech has nearly 400 research projects in progress with a total budget of about 150 million euros. In 2022, researchers filed seven invention disclosures, and in 2021, four. Out of around 120 business contracts, we can count the number of licence agreements on the fingers of one hand. We could say that research projects fail to identify inventions or IPs with commercialisation potential in practical terms. However, it is the new knowledge that emerges from research projects that has the greatest potential to foster a research-intensive economy.
This suggests that the cooperation between R&D done at the university and the business sector must be redefined in a more R&D-intensive direction. It is therefore strategically important to create more knowledge in order to commercialise it and transfer it into the economy.
To raise IP awareness:
- Embedding IP knowledge and IP commercialisation skills together with courses on entrepreneurship and conducting projects in all curricula at undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level.
- Raising awareness among researchers of IP and its commercialisation – this can be done by creating international experts and offering the much-needed master classes.
- Introducing IP notices into the research project application process and doctoral thesis planning to help researchers outline expected IP in collaboration with the Technology Transfer Office at the earliest possible stage (requires building up the resource of technology transfer experts).
- Raising the IP and innovation awareness of all top managers, research group leaders, and departmental directors, along with raising awareness of IP commercialisation.
The billion dollar question: how to commercialise and raise smart money?
As a result of the second panel of the think-tank, it became clear that talking about a million is not enough today – a billion would be a sufficient ambition and target. The volume of private capital is growing in the market, but there is a lack of excellent and smart ideas. Discussions also confirmed that making mistakes is a way of learning and something not to be feared; instead, it is a way to move forward wiser, involving experienced experts if necessary, thereby accelerating progress.
Through colourful experiences and examples, the academic tandem of Ustav and Saarma underlined the importance of smart and professional commercialisation skills in research institutions. The motivation of a researcher is always individual – it is a matter of interest, passions, mentality, and a will to change, a sense of mission, and it can be supported and encouraged. In this light, it would also be worth reviewing the career and motivation system at the university – have we created equivalents in the career matrix between, for example, publication, patenting, and spin offs? Clearly, university policies need to be reformed to support the commercialisation of IP in practice.
Under the current rules, the IP created by a university belongs to the university. The university has agreed that the revenue from the commercialisation of IP will be shared between the author, the commercialiser, and the university in a 40/40/20 split. Is that not motivating enough? Why do researchers fail to report and identify IP created in research?
Academician Mart Ustav also pointed out some examples of a failure of universities to transfer scientific achievements to economy – life is much more complicated. Different models could openly be considered outside the university: subsidiaries, investment funds, development centres or spin-offs.
The fact is that we have a shortage of both researchers and professional technology transfer experts, and this is a bottleneck for universities, businesses, and the public sector. A prerequisite for building the capacity of TTOs (Technology Transfer Offices) is the availability of technology transfer experts. However, the learning curve for technology transfer experts is long – it takes a combination of a technological education on at least the graduate level, combined with legal education in a specific field and certainly real-life experience, before a person can act as a commercialisation practitioner in a specific field.
Another issue is the little interest among universities to take advantage of opportunities for involving private capital. In Nordic countries and the US, it is clear that private funds invest early in the development of new technologies at a fairly low TRL (technology readiness level). Both venture capital and private funds have been set up for this purpose in different sectors. In Estonia, we prefer the support measures of the EU and the Estonian Research Council and do not have the courage to risk involving capital. Private capital, on the other hand, helps validate the future prospects of a technology, directs thinking about its applications, validates solutions for the market, and guides future problem solving, while increasing the research-intensity of the economy. As the number of private investors and private funds are growing in Estonia, it presents an opportunity for the academia. Attracting private capital to increase IP commercialisation and research capacity should be the next challenge for TalTech.
Research infrastructure is an integral component of both R&D and innovation. The dilemma of whether a university should have only research and teaching laboratories or also, for example, prototyping and scaling laboratories, is easy to answer in the core areas of TalTech based on its strategic objectives – it is not possible to take a leadership role in a core area without the appropriate infrastructure. It is therefore necessary to identify the core areas to be promoted in the long term and to take a respective role in the society and the ecosystem.
To encourage the commercialisation of IP
In the short term:
- Train technology transfer experts and bring in external experts while they are still rare in Estonia.
- Convene an IP Protection and Commercialisation Roundtable that would bring together the stakeholders of the ecosystem to address and shape issues of relevance to the sector.
- Update IP policy principles to encourage participation and clearly describe the rights and responsibilities of different stakeholders, including students.
- Develop (based on the renewed IP policy) an investor readiness support system for researchers, PhD students, and students, creating a nurturing ecosystem for IP creation and commercialisation.
- Review the career system of the university so that it values IP creation and commercialisation, high-level entrepreneurial experience, and allows both exit and entry into academia through different pathways (from business, public sector).
In the long term:
- Train the next generation of technology transfer experts for both academia and businesses and create and manage a system of training opportunities in Estonia.
- Negotiations with alumni and private capital to set up a TalTech investment fund and engage professionals in managing the portfolio of spin-offs and holdings of TalTech.
- Identify the core areas of the focus areas of the university, where it will assume a leading role in the society.
- In a situation, where IP is owned by the university, the commercialisation of IP should be the responsibility of the Technology Transfer Office of the university, which has the freedom and capacity to work on that.
- Bring together different capabilities and resources to launch a centre for technical and engineering excellence aimed at providing R&D and innovation solutions to industry and the business sector.