Universities in UK: From Research to Patents

Higher Education Providers (HEPs) in the UK pride themselves with delivering excellent teaching and world class research, but here is a question: how can we measure how ‘innovative’ these institutions are? One way to look at this is to see how many patents each institution has using data from the Higher Education Business Community Interaction (HE-BCI) return. Though this is nowhere nearly as comprehensive a method as are the numerous rankings, league tables, and other excellence framework exercises, it is still a simple way of showing who invests in protecting their intellectual property.

What are the caveats?

First, this is not a sign of research strength or quality but rather shows what the universities choose to do with their intellectual property.

Second, whether universities have a large patent portfolio or not depends on a range of factors: some universities do not focus on research as much as others do (e.g. some HEPs are traditionally research focused whilst other, more recently established ones, put more emphasis on teaching); some areas of research are less likely to be commercialised (e.g. research in the social sciences and humanities subjects would less frequently lead to practical inventions as would research in the applied scientific subject areas); some universities may choose not to file any patents if they do not seek to commercialise their inventions, and so on.

These are only a few out of many possible explanations, so keeping this information in mind, have a look at the insights.

The Size of UK’s Patent Portfolio:

In 2016 the 162 UK higher education providers held a total of 18,723 live patents! 18% of those, or 3,357 were owned by a single institution: the University of Oxford. What is also striking is that the university with the second largest patent portfolio, the University College London, has approximately half the number of patents that Oxford has.


By applying the Pareto principle to the data we see that 80% of the patents were owned by the top 15% of institutions (or the top 24 out of 162 HEIs). If you would like to find out more about the Pareto principle, have a look at this article: https://betterexplained.com/articles/understanding-the-pareto-principle-the-8020-rule/

The Region Split

London is the region with the largest number of patents overall – 5,152 followed by the South East with 4,265. Whilst London has twice as many HEPs than the South East (38 vs. 19), the region only has 20% more patents.


Another interesting region is Northern Ireland – whilst there are only four HEPs, only two of them held any live patents as of 2016. These were the ‘Queen’s University of Belfast’ and the ‘University of Ulster’.

The Management of Intellectual Property

The last set of charts do not focus solely on patents but rather, on the overall management of the intellectual property generated by an institution. This may include any licenses, designs, and trademarks, etc. When comparing whether the management of IP is dealt-with in-house or outsourcing, it is clear to see the difference between the top 24 institutions and the remaining institutions with at least one active patent. Amongst the top 24, the most preferred method is through a combination of both in-house and outsourcing the expertise whilst amongst the remaining universities, outsourcing is the most popular choice.


One very interesting observation from the data is that amongst the 97 HEIs that held at least 1 patent in 2016, all but two have disclosed that members of staff whose research generate the intellectual property are rewarded in some form. Although it is not easy to compare what these rewarding methods are, remember that you can still find out more about them by clicking on an institution in either of the charts.

Is This All the Data Could Tell Us?

Absolutely no. The data is very rich and it allows for a great depth of analyses which may be covered in other #VisualisingHE projects. Some of the questions that weren’t answered due to limitations of the data include:

  • any 5-10 year trend analyses (not all data for the last 10 years is made freely available by HESA).
  • any cost-revenue insights (this topic explored patents in particular and the cost-revenue analysis available in the dataset is for the entire intellectual property of an institution);
  • any breakdown of the science field in which patents are held (a topic that may be explored with data from the UK patent office, if such open dataset exists).

Link to interactive viz:





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