HESA consults on spin-outs data

Hurrah for identifiers!

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

What do we really know about university spin-outs?

They’ve become something of a fashionable proxy measure for the value that universities (and, specifically, the research and innovation that goes on in universities) brings to the wider economy. But other than raw numbers, we don’t really know anything about them.

Here’s the state of the art, as presented in this morning’s data release. You’ll note – especially regarding finance information – we have a lot of estimates rather than actual data. Especially when it comes to finance.

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This is testament to the HE-BCI collection’s roots as a tool for benchmarking and understanding provider performance. As we move closer to usage for regulation or funding, things need to be a little more precise. Perhaps counterintuitively, estimated data is harder to collect than definitive data: especially when the definitive data needs to be returned elsewhere.

Irene Tracey’s independent review of spinouts made the case for gathering a bit more data, with the response codifying this into a policy intention. If we knew, for example, the name and Company Reference Number (CRN) of a spinout, we could link this to data collected by Companies House. And that would mean we wouldn’t need to spend time and effort making estimates.

So HESA is consulting on changes to Table Four of HE-BCI to meet this growing demand for data. We need to start with a baseline, so the first proposal is a one-off “spin-out census” running this summer and covering the 2022-23 academic year. This will give HESA (and end users) a list of currently active spinouts, which can then be topped up each year with the return via a tweaked HE-BCI of new spinouts and changes to existing spinouts. Collecting identifiers used elsewhere makes for the ability to straightforwardly connect to other datasets – with the practical upshot that there may well be be less data that needs to be specifically created in order to be returned.

Even better, the identifiers and names will be open data – so anyone with an interest can crack on and investigate the spin-out world. Other parts of the return, and some derived fields, will contain sensitive information that can be used by statutory customers only. Data will also be available on “major milestones” – including things like initial public offerings (IPOs), acquisitions and mergers, or bankruptcy and liquidation.

We also get a new (clearer) definition of university spin outs:

Spin-outs are firms that are founded based on intellectual property (IP) generated through a HE provider’s research. For the purpose of HE-BCI, we interpret this as comprising all firms that exploit IP, which has both emerged from research originating within the HE provider, and which can be protected using legal means.

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