Summer Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:42 pm on 25th July 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham 3:42 pm, 25th July 2019

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney, and I commend the work that he has described, not least his campaign to save the Springburn works.

Years ago, as a Minister in the Treasury and the then Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, I played my part in encouraging universities to commercialise their superb research outcomes. I think that was the right thing to do, but there is growing evidence that in some very prestigious institutions that approach can go badly wrong.

My constituent Sunil Purushothaman qualified as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital in 1998 and worked as a doctor for two years. Fascinated since childhood by electronics, he was very interested in its medical applications, so in 2000 he started a PhD at Imperial College, supervised by Professor Christofer Toumazou, who is now regius professor of engineering at Imperial. My constituent came up with the idea of using a common electronic device for DNA testing. Professor Toumazou thought it was a good idea but told my constituent that in order to obtain a PhD under his supervision, under the terms of what he called a “pipeline agreement” that he had with Imperial College, my constituent would have to write a patent for the new idea and to vest it in Professor Toumazou’s company.

My constituent has since discovered that there was no such pipeline agreement and that obtaining a PhD did not require him to write a patent application, still less to vest it in Professor Toumazou’s company. However, he felt that he had to do as he had been told, and so he did. Initially his idea was just a vague idea, but it proved to be a very good one and in 2004 he demonstrated it successfully. The demands of delivering it were immense, and it took Mr Purushothaman six very stressful and demanding years. He obtained his PhD in 2006.

In August 2003, Professor Toumazou arranged the establishment of a company, Suniseq Ltd, subsequently DNA Electronics, to commercialise my constituent’s idea. Professor Toumazou instructed him to raise investment of £50,000 to buy the rights to his patent from Toumaz Technology. A third of the shares in DNA Electronics were vested in Mr Purushothaman.

On completing his PhD, Mr Purushothaman finally left Imperial in March 2006. He was due to start GP training a few months later, but instead, tragically, he suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by the strain at Imperial. He was unable to work at all for over 10 years. He continued to receive demands from DNA Electronics, addressed to him as shareholder, adding to the pressure he was under. So in 2010 he handed all his shares over to the company, receiving no payment at all for them, and he agreed to have his name taken off a European patent of his work, leaving Professor Toumazou as apparently the main author. My constituent was in fact the sole author of that work.

Mr Purushothaman’s invention achieved immense commercial success, which continues, for DNA Electronics, and great wealth and numerous awards and honours for Professor Toumazou. My constituent has had no benefit from his invention at all. Robbed of a promising career, he has endured over a decade of hardship.

The central problem was that Imperial College’s intellectual property policy specifies, rightly, that any IP created by its students should be vested in the first instance in the college. In the case of Mr Purushothaman’s invention, that never happened; it was vested instead in Professor Toumazou’s company. That should never have happened.

I have been writing to the provost of Imperial about this for over four years, but he has never been willing to meet to discuss it. Professor Toumazou’s behaviour has been a disgrace, but has led to him being showered with wealth and honours. And I am sorry to say that Imperial has facilitated a shameful cover-up.

Anyone planning pioneering scientific work, even at an institution as reputable as Imperial, needs to be aware of what can go wrong. Students’ IP should be protected. A change in the law, in my view, is going to be needed.