In your own words, what will GOTT do?
The Government Office for Technology Transfer is a new cross-government unit. Our role is to provide guidance and to offer practical advice and support across government to help organisations maximise the inherent value in their knowledge assets, or KAs – intangible assets such as intellectual property rights, processes, data and know-how. Our formation stemmed from initial conversations in the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, which then supported the early knowledge-assets work as part of a wider balance sheet review. That’s quite important, as it anchors what we are here to do, which is to drive additional value creation from government investment. It’s part of managing public money.
In practical terms, this is about working with the wider government community. GOTT acts as a central focus to support government departments, agencies and public bodies to develop a knowledge-assets strategy and to become more effective at identifying and developing these assets for exploitation. That might mean sharing them across government to help increase efficiency and cost savings; using them in collaboration with the private sector to co-create new innovation; or offering external advisory services based on deep subject matter knowledge or through commercialisation, for example licensing to an existing company or creating a new spin-out company. The GOTT team includes policy professionals and technology transfer specialists, which means that we can address issues ranging from policy dialogue and influence through to direct involvement with IP and exploitation projects.
You came into the role earlier in the year. What were your initial areas of focus for GOTT?
For me, it has been about understanding where GOTT can add most value and working with the team to develop a strategy to support this. As a forerunner to GOTT, the Knowledge Assets Team had been stood up as a joint endeavour between HMT and BEIS, so there was a firm foundation in place. The team published the Mackintosh report in 2021, which set out an implementation strategy to get greater value from public sector KAs, followed by publication of the Rose Book, which explains the concepts and practicalities behind managing knowledge assets in government. The Knowledge Assets Grant Fund had been launched to explore the development of early-stage knowledge assets, so getting up to speed with how this was working and how we can further help applications to come into the fund has been a priority.
I have also been able to meet a lot of our key stakeholders and have been really impressed at how active many of them are in knowledge-asset management and utilisation. From the UK Health Security Agency to Kew Gardens, seeing the enthusiasm and the range of opportunities government agencies and public bodies are working on has been helpful for GOTT’s strategy development. I have also been impressed by the innovations that are happening within departments and how these are being shared cross-departmentally.
What are your priorities for GOTT in its first year or so of operation?
Our priorities are twofold. Firstly, to engage across government to encourage awareness of knowledge-asset management and its increasing importance in helping drive UK innovation and productivity. Secondly, to help organisations and their teams practically, wherever they may be on their KA journey.
To deliver on these, the GOTT team will continue to promote the Rose Book and to actively engage with organisations and departments (our “clients”) to help them develop knowledge-asset strategies. We’ll also be working with them to identify and unlock barriers to effective KA exploitation, which may be policy related or more operational.
“The KA grant fund isn’t solely focused on science and tech opportunities, it is truly pan-government in its remit – we’ve made recent awards to the ONS and the Government Internal Audit Agency”
The KA grant fund is an excellent way for organisations to take a first step into exploring the potential of a knowledge asset and the team in GOTT is keen to talk to potential applicants to guide them through this. Awards can range from £5,000 or £10,000, perhaps for market research, up to £250,000 to develop the asset to bring it nearer to adoption or commercialisation. A priority for us is to spread the message that the KA grant fund isn’t solely focused on science and tech opportunities, it is truly pan-government in its remit. We’ve made recent awards to the ONS and the Government Internal Audit Agency, for example.
As we grow our strategic partnerships team, we can offer increasing support for KA identification and development. Our KA exploitation specialists are now getting involved with clients, either directly supporting or providing advice on what needs to happen next and signposting to the resources available. We’ll be building a framework of experts and advisers and will support making the right connections.
Something that our clients have asked for is specialised training in knowledge-asset and IP identification and exploitation in the public sector context. I’m keen that we develop a programme that is easy to navigate at the point of need and that draws on what is already available, alongside some bespoke content. We plan to work with partners across the public and private sectors to deliver on this. For example, the IPO has some great training and educational resources available and has already worked with us. There are practitioners in several ALBs and public sector research establishments who are interested to share their knowledge and experiences in KA exploitation more widely – we’ve already benefitted from IP experts in the MoD, for example.
Beyond the IPO and HMT, are there any key departments, professions or roles across government that you’ll be especially keen to work with, and why?
Any success in KA management will come from working across government and leveraging diverse expertise and perspectives. I’m particularly keen to work with the commercial function to understand how we can maximise value to both HMG and the supplier and ensure that innovation doesn’t lie fallow. At the departmental level, I’m hoping that we can develop mechanisms to allow us to share KA developments, successes and challenges within their portfolio of agencies and public bodies, as well as within their own teams.
You’ve previously chaired the global Association of University Technology Managers – what do you think the UK does well, relatively, and where does it have most room to improve?
The UK excels in technology transfer and what’s called knowledge exchange in the university and public research sectors. We are envied by many other countries – I know this because people tell me. In the UK we’ve taken a long-term approach, with sustained commitment. Our strategy has been consistent and has encouraged practice to evolve, which has delivered results for UK innovation. For example, the annual Higher Education Business and Community Interaction report shows that the university sector granted over 18,000 licences and formed nearly 200 spin-out companies last year.
As GOTT is based in the BEIS Salford office, I’m particularly interested in Northern Gritstone, which was recently founded by the Universities of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield to invest in university spin-out companies, leveraging the innovation potential in the north of England. It’s a great example of place-based innovation. While the context is different for technology transfer and KA exploitation across government, I’m optimistic that the wealth of UK experience can be harnessed to great advantage.
There is always room to improve! But if I was to pick one area, it’s probably around risk appetite. Or lack of. This hits home in terms of how – and how quickly – we make decisions. Decision making can tend to be slow and bureaucratic, which is unsuited to the fast pace needed to deliver on commercialisation and value realisation.
One challenge raised in the Mackintosh report was that organisations don’t have a good awareness of the KAs they hold and their value – what do you think causes this?
There are a few factors contributing to this. The very nature of assets being intangible is that they can be harder to identify. It’s far easier to identify a building or piece of kit! There hasn’t been a routine requirement to record knowledge assets, so the culture and the supporting processes aren’t there yet. There’s also the issue of capacity to get involved in knowledge-asset management. Quite simply, it is hard to find time to resource something that hasn’t been seen as a priority amidst competing demands. That’s why thinking through a KA strategy is helpful.
Valuation always seems daunting, but it shouldn’t be. I’d say that most times, people who have been involved in developing a knowledge asset have a good instinct of whether it might be valuable as they know their field. The quantum will come later when further scoping has been done. And that is where GOTT can bring some help to bear.
What kind of things do you consider when assessing the potential value of a KA, or the potential for transfer?
There is one simple question: does anyone want this? Followed by: will they invest in it? Here I’m framing investment not just in terms of a financial transaction but also in respect of the hidden investment needed to get the KA adopted. For example, there may be an attractive process developed that has the potential to generate efficiencies longer term but the cost to change a traditional way of doing things may be too great for a potential customer.
Some upfront research can be helpful to get an understanding of who might be out there that might want the KA, what their problems are and whether what you have will help. It also involves looking at what else might be similar. If there is some kind of competition, it won’t necessarily impact the quality of your KA but may well affect its value. That’s the kind of local assessment we encourage applicants to the grant fund to make. It’s often as simple as searching the internet and talking to colleagues in their profession and to their contractors. We can then get into more detail as part of the funding.
You’ve worked in various tech transfer roles across different sectors and countries – have you developed a “nose” for the ideas or assets that will work well? Or is it the case that many assets can transfer well if they have the right support?
That’s a great question. Although we talk about knowledge assets, it’s hard to extract an asset and exploit it in isolation. Successful KA transfer frequently relies on people and the environments they work in. When a venture capitalist looks at a new company investment, they often say they would prefer to back a reasonable business opportunity which has excellent management than an excellent opportunity with average management. It’s people that make for success.
It’s the same when looking at KAs. Having a champion locally who can explain and enthuse about the asset and can help its transfer through sharing their knowledge, or through leadership and direction, makes a real difference. So does the right environment, which means having both access to the people to help with the KA process and the working environment where KA exploitation is seen as part of normal business and is encouraged.
Departments have been asked to focus on growth, so I’m interested in the GOTT’s role around helping develop innovations nearer to adoption or commercialisation. How much of your role as a leader of an organisation will be about building connections across sectors to find support and opportunities for public sector KAs?
Building those connections is vital to our work and to success in KA value creation. An objective is to equip colleagues across the public sector with the information and connections that will help them as they develop KA capability and opportunities. We have established a KA Champions network, which brings together people across government who are active in or interested in KA management. It’s a great chance to share experiences, to tackle issues together and for them to be a sounding board for GOTT. This is something that we are looking to expand, both in this format and through additional networks.
The Mackintosh report identified the potential for KAs to both improve public sector efficiency and drive growth, but many people would only think about the latter objective when talking about spinning innovation out of government. Is it unusual to be thinking about public sector KAs as driving efficiency? Do you have a sense about which of these two aims might be easier to realise?
There is a wonderful example of how a public sector KA has driven efficiency across government. The communications directorate at the Department for Education created a proof-of-concept robot, ARNOLD, that has replaced manual data-entry for user emails and letters. It reduced processing time by a third and allowed the team to focus on delivery rather than administration. This was a great use of the Cabinet Office Centre of Excellence for Robotic Process Automation framework and involved getting an understanding of what has been done in other departments. But it didn’t stop there – ARNOLD was shared with HMT, which has also seen efficiency gains and early cost savings in the region of several million pounds.
I wouldn’t like to call it on whether efficiency or growth will be easier to realise. It’s been clear in so many of the conversations I’ve had recently that leaders see that the role of the public sector now includes stimulating innovation and growth, both locally and nationally. I’ve also been in conversations where people are reflecting on how their developments and practices could be useful more widely across government, so I think there is lots of potential. It’s a matter of surfacing it and finding routes to adoption. My hope is that GOTT can play its part in this unique and emerging innovation ecosystem.
Dr Alison Campbell is chief executive of the Government Office for Technology Transfer