New home for innovation at UCL

More than 20 years ago Steve Currall came to the UK doing a masters at the LSE. Now the American innovation professor is running a UCL department from a brand-new £11 million building.


The new Engineering Front building at UCL. Image courtesy UCL.

More than 20 years ago Steve Currall was over in the UK doing a masters at the LSE. Now the American professor is back just three blocks away from his old hall of residence, having just moved into the brand-new £11 million Engineering Front building constructed by University College London (UCL) to house the Department of Management Science and Innovation that he set up last year, as well as UCL Advances, the company he set up to stimulate collaboration among researchers, business and investors.

Currall has been in London on a joint professorship since December 2005, lured over from Rice University, Texas, by UCL and the London Business School (LBS) to replicate his success there in setting up what he calls an “ecosystem” of scientists and engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors.

UCL and LBS had already formed a partnership, in 2000 – UCL has no business school, and no plans for one – so, says Currall, “it was all of our judgement that it made sense for me to have a joint appointment, 75 per cent UCL, 25 per cent LBS”. The aim: to provide a platform to deepen the relationship between the two institutions. “LBS is a world-class pool of management talent, so we have a number of activities designed to promote interaction between technical students and UCL and LBS students.”

Whistlestop tour

The link with the UK began in 2003, when Currall was on sabbatical at the University of Chicago Business School and the UK Department for Trade and Industry sponsored him to do a two-week whistlestop tour around England and Scotland, visiting major university tech transfer activities. “In part it was me talking about what I had done at Rice, and also learning from what’s going on in the UK,” he says.

Steve Currall: extending the ecosystem.

The process of building a new department and developing the ecosystem has been “fairly straightforward”, says Currall. He puts this down to two reasons. First, “the fact that UK is the most progressive country in Europe with respect to technology transfer”. And second, he says, his approach came as no surprise: “Many of my colleagues at UCL and LBS were familiar with what I had done at Rice or with prominent American cases at Stanford and MIT.” As a result, he says, he has encountered “remarkably little resistance”.

Currall’s approach to tech transfer and innovation has sometimes been called one of social networking, but, he says, it’s more than that. “Social networking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. I bring a philosophy based on building an ecosystem of scientists and engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors. And what I am seeking to do is to create that ecosystem.” Then he pauses: “Create is perhaps not quite the right word…expand, deepen, extend the existing environment in London.”

He talks about there being three elements to enterprise at UCL, and enthusiastically describes the work of the Department of Management Science and Innovation. Sitting within the Faculty of Engineering Sciences, it is what he calls a “traditional academic department”, with undergraduates, postgraduates – there are 40 on the Masters in Technology Entrepreneurship course – and wider teaching and research.

Surge in student numbers

Currall is clearly excited by what he calls the “explosion of interest” in the new undergraduate degree at the department, Information Management for Business, which started taking students in autumn last year. “In our first year we had 180 applications for 51 slots. This year we had over 400 applications for 60 to 70 slots.”

“It’s a new course that is not a computer science course nor is it a straight business course, but it’s a hybrid of the two. There is a good dose of technical activity through partnership with Department of Computer Science and the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies. And so the students are getting a terrific mix of both business and technical material.”

But, he says, “the other even more compelling element of this is that it is a course that is sponsored by e-Skills, an IT and telecoms consortium comprised of all the household names such as BT and IBM and HP and Oracle and all the others.” The curriculum has been designed in partnership with the corporations, and the corporations have committed to speaking to the students, providing internships and considering providing them with permanent jobs.

The money comes from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, not the corporations, but it is allocated to the employer-led e-Skills group to create these kinds of course. Currall says there are around a dozen similar courses around the country.

The new department also teaches on business and management topics around the UCL campus, with about 2,000 student registrations a year on the courses. And, adds Currall, “of course, we do scholarly research on innovation and technology management”.

The second element is UCL Advances, which unlike the department does not do degree courses or research. Instead, says Currall, it does non-degree education for scientists, engineers and medical researchers on the commercialisation process. And it plays an important catalyst role in brining together its three main stakeholder groups: scientists and engineers, business people, and investors.

Then Currall defines the kind of business people he’s talking about: those “who understand problems that need solving and market demand. The challenge they often have is that they don’t have technical solutions at hand, though of course our scientists and engineers have solutions, but they don’t know what problems need to be solved.”

The third element, in which Currall is not directly involved, is UCL Business, which works as a traditional tech transfer organisation dealing with IP protection, licence negotiations, and so on.

The upside of the credit crunch

Has the global credit crunch caused any problems? Currall thinks not – indeed, he sees an upside: “One of the slightly counter-intuitive things about an economic downturn is that some people take it as an opportunity to further their education, so applications for graduate programmes actually go up.”

Nor is he fazed by, for example, 3i’s recent decision to abandon early-stage investment. “I’m not one to tell 3i what to do. I’m working to try to create the environment where there are more early-stage investment opportunities. I have met with venture capitalists recently who think there is a gap in the market. For example, 3i getting out of early stage creates a bit of a gap in the market for new entrants to go in,” he says.

Above all, says Currall, the environment is good. That’s not just a matter of government policy – “although I think government is very progressive and ambitious in this area”. There is also the venture capital community based in London, which he describes as “the most mature in Europe”, though he then qualifies that statement: “very mature for Europe, not by US standards”. And then there is the concentration of world-class universities in the UK – four of the Times Higher’s top 10 in the world, Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial and UCL. “This is the place to be in Europe in terms of technology commercialisation,” he says.

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Related subjects: Innovation science, Technology Transfer, United Kingdom

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