Harnessing Central and Eastern Europe’s innovative potential

February 2013

By Mikolaj Rogowski, PhD student, Intellectual Property Law Institute, Jagiellonian University, Poland

With the dramatic events of the late 1980s, many Central and Eastern European countries began a process of transition towards a market-driven, innovation-based, knowledge economy. While these countries have tremendous innovative potential, establishing innovation ecosystems that fully harness that potential and translate it into sustained economic growth remains an ongoing challenge. This article discusses the strategic importance of universities and public research organizations (PROs) in boosting the region’s innovation performance and growth prospects and looks at a range of WIPO tools designed to support countries in this endeavor.

Countries in Central and Eastern Europe are home to
some of the world’s oldest universities including Poland’s
Jagiellonian University (in the background). (Photo
Mikolaj Rogowski).

The visionary inventor and entrepreneur, Thomas Edison, once said “to have a great idea, have a lot of them". The constant and abundant flow of ideas is a prerequisite for the emergence of technologies that can make a positive difference to society. As bastions of knowledge and learning, universities and research institutes are awash with curious minds that seek to develop creative solutions to present-day challenges. As hubs of creativity, universities and research organizations represent countless opportunities to forge intellectual potential into creative solutions.

Countries in Central and Eastern Europe have a strong academic tradition. The region is home to some of the world’s oldest universities, such as the University of Prague in the Czech Republic and the Jagiellonian University, in Poland, both established in the 14th century. Countries in the region have a deep pool of talented and well-educated inventors and creators and a strong capacity for producing and expanding knowledge.

While, in general, Central and Eastern European countries have significantly boosted their innovative capacities, many within the business community are acutely aware that further progress is needed to ensure the region realizes and benefits from its full innovative potential.

Given the strategic importance of universities as generators of new knowledge and the fact that knowledge is becoming an increasingly important part of production, many believe that promoting stronger linkages between the region’s academic and business communities offers significant promise in terms of boosting its innovation performance and economic growth.

Closer and more effective collaboration between academia and business can also help stem the outflow of skilled labor from the region. The current “brain drain” experienced by many countries in the region is making it increasingly difficult for universities and businesses to retain the high-calibre individuals they require to enhance their capacities to generate high-value technologies.

In securing the region’s long-term economic growth, the stakes could not be higher. The link between technological development and economic growth is now firmly established. As far back as the 1950s, the Nobel prize-winning economist, Robert Solow, determined that the introduction of new technologies accounts for as much as 80 percent of a country’s wealth or gross domestic product. In today’s digitally-driven knowledge economy, the need to innovate and develop new technologies has become even more central to the competitiveness of businesses operating in national and global markets, to economic growth and to the creation of better jobs.

Work undertaken by the innovation think-tank, Nesta, demonstrates that the six percent of UK innovation-based businesses with the highest growth rates generated half of the new jobs created in the UK between 2002 and 2008. Similarly, WIPO’s World Intellectual Property Report 2011 underlines the crucial contribution made by universities and PROs, as producers and diffusers of knowledge, in the development of national innovation systems (see Harnessing the Benefits of Publicly-Funded Research, WIPO Magazine 3/2012).

”Firms and other innovators depend on the contributions of public research and of future scientists to produce innovation of commercial significance,” the report notes. The increasingly science-based nature of technological advances, it submits, further underlines the crucial importance of strengthening links between academia and business.

The report cites a number of economic studies that demonstrate the positive impact that academic research has on industrial innovation and productivity. It suggests, however, that successful outward knowledge transfer from academia will only succeed if a “two-way exchange that builds on the mutual capacities of the public and private research sectors” is fostered. Within this mix, intellectual property (IP) is of central importance.

The experiences of a number of countries point to the benefits that can accrue to universities by adopting a stronger entrepreneurial orientation that embraces patenting and licensing. In a number of cases, this has helped to boost the quality of university research and establish mechanisms to encourage the transfer of commercially significant, cutting-edge technologies. In the US, for example, studies show that university patenting and licensing have been fundamental to the emergence of new industries and that US university start-ups are more likely to develop into viable businesses and create more jobs. Similarly, the experiences of Japan and Finland demonstrate that universities and PROs can realize their innovative potential by adopting an effective IP policy that transforms public research into valuable commercial assets and promotes strategic use of these valuable assets.

Harnessing the innovative potential of universities

How then can the enormous potential of academic institutions in Central and Eastern Europe be better harnessed to realize the region’s full potential and boost economic growth? WIPO’s Division for Certain Countries in Europe and Asia (DCEA) has developed a range of tools that addresses the specific challenges faced by Central and Eastern European countries when it comes to strengthening links between academia and business. These tools, which include studies, guidelines, recommendations and model policies, are designed to support public research hubs throughout the innovation process, from conception to commercialization.

The WIPO Study on Technology Transfer in Countries in Transition offers policy recommendations that help foster closer university-business collaboration. It outlines options for developing and implementing more effective and mutually beneficial technology transfer practices.

Similarly, the WIPO Guidelines on the Management of Academic Intellectual Property in Early Stage Innovation in Countries in Transition identify effective IP management practices for early stage innovations. The guidelines were based on a survey that benchmarks current practices and identifies bottlenecks in the current innovation process. They focus on three main areas, namely, technology transfer; technology transfer organizations; and academic IP rights management and offer useful insights into a range of issues, including managing patent portfolios; effective commercialization strategies; and technology management. This practical guide maps a course for those seeking to leverage the commercial value of university research. It identifies potential risks and possible solutions when commercializing a technology.

WIPO’s Model Intellectual Property Policy for Universities and Research Institutions is a further complement to the suite of tools available to support the development of national innovation ecosystems in the region. A template to support universities in crafting their own IP policies, it outlines the various rights and strategies that may be employed to protect, leverage and transfer intellectual assets to the commercial setting.

Universities and PROs can reap huge benefits from the implementation of a comprehensive IP strategy. Such an approach promises long-term financial sustainability with the potential creation of new revenue streams from strategic licensing of research-derived technologies. It also promises qualitative improvements in terms of research and development. The commercialization of cutting-edge technologies and the creation of academic start-ups offer interesting employment options for postgraduates. In turn, this can serve as a magnet to attract high-calibre students and researchers, who bring with them new ideas and new potential. Moreover, with an effective institution-wide IP policy in place, a university is well placed to take advantage of international collaborative research opportunities. The complexity of present-day scientific challenges is such that without partnerships underpinned by robust IP agreements, little high-impact scientific progress will be possible. As one academic recently put it, research practice has recently moved from “publish or perish” to “partner or perish”.

Effective use of IP, however, hinges on an understanding of how the system works and how it can be used to best advantage. While much progress has been made in terms of raising IP awareness in recent years, much still remains to be done. In addition to the range of IP courses offered by the WIPO Academy, WIPO has also developed a tool for the teaching of IP in the Central and Eastern European region. The tool identifies the specific IP needs of countries in the region with respect to training and education. It introduces core IP curricula as well as innovative IP teaching methodologies.

As Thomas Edison noted, "genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Only by introducing a full system of measures aimed at stimulating creativity and effectively harnessing its fruits through the use of IP can we make sure that all the hard work that is invested in innovation within universities and PROs does not go to waste. An effective IP strategy is a pivotal element in ensuring that the region is in a position to fully develop and leverage its capacity to innovate and thereby stimulate long-term economic growth.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.