There are a variety of ways in which social science research can take a product or service to market, or engage with the business sector. Deciding on the most appropriate model depends on the nature and focus of the research, prevailing circumstances at the research institution and point of delivery, and the researcher’s own goals and aspirations.

“As consumer buying attitudes change, ethical, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly brands are coming to the forefront. Looking at businesses solely through a monetary lens is not enough anymore,” says Gabriela Matouskova, Business Development Manager at Coventry University Social Enterprise CIC. “As such, commercialising any research should focus on the social value it will create and its sustainability, and not purely on whether it makes a large financial return. If the ultimate aim is for the research to have a positive societal impact and improve people's lives, a self-sustaining operation is a viable business model.”

The main options for commercialisation include:

  • Spinout company – usually set up on an arm’s-length basis from the university, but with academic representation on the board. A spinout is a separate legal entity from the people who run the business, and usually a private limited company incorporated with Companies House. Spinout companies have at least one shareholder and can retain any profits and pay dividends to shareholders after paying tax.
  • Licensing – a common approach and a relatively simple route to take knowledge from research to market quickly. In addition to utilising the knowledge, a licence may also include an agreement to use a university’s insignia, logos or trademarks as an endorsement of the quality and authenticity of the product or service. The university should have oversight of the licensee to ensure high standards are maintained.
  • Social enterprise – often has the structure of a conventional firm or spinout, but operates as a business. Any excess income may be retained by the organisation for future business development, to fund research, or to alleviate societal needs. The impact and purpose of the organisation are valued equally with the goal of making a profit. Social scientists may choose to set up a social enterprise for themselves, or to work in partnership with an existing one that would benefit from their research input.
  • Consultancy – can provide research-based expertise; clients are charged using a fee structure. Consultancy is an approach often taken by economists – but other disciplines do it too. Based on research, consultancy can advise on, for example, how governments can save money, or ways to bring benefits to underdeveloped nations.

For more information and guidance about intellectual property, please see our section on intellectual assets and property.

“We hold the licence for the ASSIST smoking prevention service, which is based upon a randomised controlled trial undertaken by Bristol and Cardiff Universities,” says Paul Harrod, Evidence to Impact.

“We now licence the programme to Local Authorities across the UK, and from last year also in France and Columbia. We ensure rigorous quality assurance, provide ‘train the trainer’ services, other ongoing development and training and update the manuals as required. However it is still based on the underlying research, because of course that is what makes it an effective intervention.”