In conversation with… Jeff Skinner

A lifelong proponent of technology commercialisation through teaching, consulting and lecturing around the world, Jeff has been the architect of many major commercialisation deals and initiatives. 
Prior to his current role at LBS, Jeff was commercial director at University College London (UCL), where he built its Technology Transfer Division from scratch. This included creating two seed funds and units to stimulate consultancy, industry engagement and spin-out creation. He also helped found more than 30 technology-based spin-outs that collectively raised more than £30 million in first-round capital, and introduced management education for engineers.
Lara Pawade sat down with Jeff to discuss the UK tech-transfer space, how the UK compares worldwide, and what a background in STEM can bring to venture capital.
Please can you tell us about your career journey to date?
I started on the academic treadmill. I did a degree in physics and a PhD in thin-film photonics, which I thought would lead to wonderful things, but I soon realised that the research didn’t drive me as much as the commercialisation of the research. So, I went to work for General Electric in telecoms. I became more interested in doing something with the research that my colleagues and I were actually producing. I went to the US, where I was bitten by this commercialisation aspect, and decided to swap career tracks. 
I went back to the UK to join University College London (UCL). At that time, the Provost, Derek Roberts, was thinking about starting a commercial arm to create new ventures. I came along at just the right time. 
This was in the very early days of tech transfer. There were only four universities doing proactive tech transfer. Everybody else was doing research and collaboration and so on, which is very reactive, but very few people were actually going out there and trying to create new ventures and do the business-developing side. In 1994, there were about 30 of us and we all got together and formed an association, then the whole field completely exploded in 1998 when the UK government decided to stimulate the whole new-venture area by creating early-stage seed funds. 
It was a marvellous initiative, and from then on knowledge transfer just took off. In 2001, closer to 3,000 people were active in the field, because the government had pumped so much money into it with ring-fenced innovation funding. 
I was asked to write the bids for funding and my overall remit grew. I started taking on other things as well, not just new ventures, but the licensing arm and then the research and collaboration unit. I created a consultancy, created seed funds and created a scheme for educating academics in commercial-type stuff, which led me to my next abiding passion – teaching other people stuff that I wish someone had taught me when I was a young researcher. 
I created the research master’s degree at UCL, and then a big exchange programme between UCL and another business school that sent academics from UCL over to do E-Venture courses at LBS. Eventually, I moved to LBS and did the actual teaching of some of the innovation and entrepreneurship courses, further stimulating E-Ventures from MBAs – a field at LBS that has grown enormously, even over the 14 years I’ve been there. And that’s it!
Somewhere along the way, I attained an MBA, which is useful for being able to talk to both communities…and insult them both! I’m still hugely concentrated in the tech-transfer arena and doing loads of consulting and training, in particular for early career researchers in commercialisation.
In simple terms, what is tech transfer?
When an academic has spent 10 years developing technology, purely out of curiosity, then one day wakes up and sees that it actually has a commercial or social benefit, the tech-transfer function enables the transition from pure research to use. It always requires some investment of one kind or another, so the major task of a tech transfer person is to identify where that investment might come from and to negotiate a deal with whoever the technology is transferred to.
Why were you so drawn to this space? 
It was more exciting and more immediate. The impact can be quite dramatic. You’ve got a laboratory – which is a curiosity thing – and an academic who is hungry to see some impact emerging from what they’ve been doing, and you flip it so that the technology is turned into something useful. It’s immensely satisfying! It was a really exciting area to be in. I love the fact that you can work across so many disciplines and have such an impact. On the other hand, it was a fabulous escape route from a field that I was never going to be interested in or excel in. A lot of tech transfer people are ex-scientists who took the same escape path into something else, so they could do it with the same expertise.
How does tech transfer in the UK compared to other countries?
We’re often compared to the US. It existed in the US for a decade – longer in some places. In MIT and the Boston area, they’d been at it for 40 years before we started. They’ve built up the entire ecosystem, built the expertise, and normalised it, so they’re bound to be ahead, but we’ve caught up in so many ways. 
Nowadays the US sometimes looks to us to see what we’ve done, especially in relation to government schemes, which have resulted in very useful stimulation of the sector.
The idea that we lag far behind the States is such a cliché now – I’m not sure there is systematic evidence for that. If you’re going to do a big exit, then you actually have to do it over there, but that’s a much later stage – I’m talking about the early stage. In Europe, there’s the European Association of tech-transfer managers (ASTP), which I co-founded and was president of for a number of years – I’m still heavily involved in training. You can’t really generalise in terms of comparing the UK with the US.
A lot is down to the government and individuals, especially people like David Sainsbury, who saw that the universities were never going to invest sufficiently with their own resources because they were never going to appropriate the upside. If the government wanted socio-economic benefits to result from this, they had to provide extra funding to allow and incentivise universities to do it.
Do you think the UK government is doing enough in the sector?
The Higher Education Innovation Fund that existed for years was a great thing. It has been replaced with other schemes now, but there’s still significant government support. It’s a question of making sure it’s targeted at specific knowledge-transfer activities within universities.
Newton’s mission is to make early-stage investing more accessible to a more diverse range of people. How can Newton better increase representation within TTOs? 
Newton has done a great job in recruiting diversities along a few dimensions. I think that one type of diversity that might be useful is the scientists themselves. It would be great if more entrepreneurially-minded scientists founded their own venture. I would like to see the space consciously opened up to admit the scientists themselves and those who advise the scientists – the tech transfer people – that introduces an entirely different type of diversity.
That’s the major focus this year for Newton. Historically, there’s been a big gap between the scientists and the innovation universities in the larger ecosystem. What do you think are the reasons for this gap?
Some say that universities are greedy and want too much equity, so they are dreadful to do business with. I think we need to unpick this perception and see what has really happened in negotiations between universities and external investors. Universities aren’t perfect in this regard, but they’re not quite the villains that they’re sometimes painted to be. Typical university to industry tech transfer deals are often extremely complex and are not simple things to negotiate. 
Generally, the tech transfer people have very good relations with the academics that they serve. There are all sorts of training that we do as a profession, but I think academics and scientists would really benefit from the Newton training as well, because that is at an entirely different level and delivered by an entirely different set of practitioners. 
What’s your advice to someone wanting to get into the tech transfer space? 
Go get a project! You don’t have to be a tech transfer person to really get involved in a tech transfer project. Show your keenness, your competence, your commitment and get going with a project – then you have something to talk about.
Edward de Bono once said that to be successful, you have to be lucky, or a little mad, or very talented, or find yourself in a rapid-growth field. For me, I found myself in a high-growth area, so it was relatively easy to get into tech transfer. It didn’t exist and there weren’t many people who saw it as a valid career path. Nowadays, competition is much fiercer for these jobs because it is seen as a valid and legitimate career choice for people who’ve got PhDs or post-doctorates.
What specific skills do you think people with STEM backgrounds can bring to venture capital? 
I’ve always held that academics, by and large, are very bright individuals – this is an entirely new field for them. The best tech transfer people I’ve ever worked with in universities are the academics who have a successful venture underneath their belts. 
We’re going to have to invest in the future and VCs want to invest in the technologies that will become inevitable and ubiquitous. If you can train some selected scientists and researchers who want to get into this area, then they can become a valuable resource. It’s fertile ground. The underlying methodology is absolutely accessible to scientists.  These are the people we want in the VC industry – those who understand both science and finance. 
For me, it’s been tremendous fun being able to work across so many different disciplines in the course of a single day and work amongst such bright minds. It has been a most fantastic privilege and I’m really thankful to all the people who have given me the opportunity to do more of it.

Interested in the relationship between STEM to VC? See more here.


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