Turning the Battleship

by Melba Kurman

Successfully using small-scale, high risk, high reward pilot programs

Turning the BattleshipLast spring, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council issued an RFI to collect feedback about university commercialization, including recommendations for more effective models, descriptions of current best practices and better metrics to gauge success. Apparently they’ve been reading the responses and may release a summary of the responses publicly. Federal policy makers should continue in this vein and fund a series of small-scale, test pilot programs to test out people’s suggestions.

Small scale, government-funded pilot programs would be cheap, yield fast results and enable a lot of different tech transfer models to be tested. Funding for the pilot programs would be targeted towards small, regional businesses who would define their proposed pilot and if they received funding, would then implement the pilot over the next 2-3 years. The small business would be required to pair up with a local university as a condition of the funding, much like an STTR grant. Successful pilot programs would offer a solution that is novel and can be quickly implemented and later scaled up. A small business outside the university would be the ideal executor of a pilot program because they would be small, lean, agile and focused. In order to receive the positive visibility and hopefully, learnings from the pilot, university administrators would need to agree to be host and advocate for the pilot. To get things going, a chunk of the tech transfer function being tested would be handed over to the small business. University inventors and students would be involved as advisors and test customers of the solution being pilot-tested. To ease the logistical burden on everybody involved, university tech transfer offices would cooperate with the small business running the pilot program to clearly delineate pilot boundaries, rights and responsibilities.

One possible pilot program could test out a new method to improve the marketing of inventions. Another pilot could test a novel best practice practiced by one university by placing the same process into a pilot at a university in a very different region. Multiple pilot programs should run at the same time in different locations. If there are several pilot programs going on at the same time, it would be possible to explore a number of different approaches in a relatively short period of time.

The closest approach to this type of field-testing I’ve seen is the Department of Energy’s recent investment in five university “innovation ecosystems.” I applaud DOE’s vision and determination to make things better, but their approach contains two major potential show-stoppers:

  1. The “innovation ecosystems” proposed by the selected universities consist of activities which are already being handled by the campus TTO and business school. Routine business plan competitions, university/industry consortiums, training for entrepreneurs are all valid and excellent tools, but there’s nothing new or particularly innovative about re-enacting commercialization techniques that have been kicking around for years. In fact, where are the university tech transfer offices in all of this?
  2. It’s just too big and change is slow and runs against the tide. Universities employ passionate and capable advocates of change; however, like any other large organization, they face challenges typical of any large organization – turf issues, inefficient centralized university procedures around hiring and firing and procurement, and internal resistance to change.

A perfect first pilot program would seek solutions that would make it easier for university scientists to exchange, catalog and distribute biological research materials. The good thing about starting with biological materials is that the material transfer process is a thorn in the side of almost every university tech transfer office and researcher that I’ve spoken to. In fact, what inspired me to dream up this “test pilot” approach was an online catalog managed by MIT that stores and distributes the building blocks of life, MIT’s Registry of Standard Parts. A pilot program that utilizes core concepts of MIT’s Registry could teach us whether it would be a good model for universities to emulate.

Users of the Registry probably did not respond to the RFI about university commercialization, but if they didn’t, they should have. The Registry of Standard Parts acts like a lending library of more than 3000 DNA segments. Registered scientists and students can request parts and submit parts. The Registry’s lending licensing model (or lack thereof) is loosely based on those of open source software, but so far, is less structured. DNA segments submitted to the Registry conform to the Biobricks™ standard so each scientist and student can work independently but easily exchange biological building blocks (similar to software standards or machine part specifications).

In the tech transfer office I used to work in, material transfer agreements represented over three times the volume of paperwork than that of licensing agreements. So many materials were exchanged that we had a half-time person dedicated to processing the material transfer paperwork. We struggled to understand and explain the byzantine process to our faculty and industry partners. The desire to streamline the process was universal, yet universities administrative units don’t have the resources , support, or motivation to embrace radical, new approaches as risky as MIT’s biological parts registry. This sort of change won’t come from within.

Small test pilot programs would lend themselves particularly well to the unique realities of the university research process. Most university research consists of platforms, materials, data and novel processes that are not going to be patented or licensed. University inventions are typically created by large, interdisciplinary online communities of researchers and students, hence don’t fit neatly into the patenting and licensing paradigm that’s currently the mainstream approach to tech transfer at most U.S. research universities.
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Melba KurmanMelba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.

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