University Inventors Don’t Have to be Entrepreneurs

by Melba Kurman

University Professors Don't Have to be EntrepreneursI’ve spent the past week combing thru almost 200 responses to the RFI on improving university commercialization issued last spring by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Technology transfer stakeholders (university administrators, faculty inventors, businesses, non-profits, foundations and private individuals) wrote a variety of recommendations, ranging from cranky one page cover letters to comprehensive and thoughtful recommendations. (I’ll post more later when I get thru all of them). It’s good stuff. Not surprisingly, recommendations are strongly tied to the stakeholder’s role. In my own response to the RFI, I point out that stakeholders seem to be talking past one another from distinct, unconnected silos: inventors offer one set of complaints and recommendations for improvement. Industry people another. University administrators yet offer another and so on.

“Constructive discourse is made difficult by a cacophony of conflicting opinions and perceptions, many of which remain unsupported by empirical data or rigorous analysis. Conflicting perceptions and agendas of university technology stakeholders cloud meaningful inquiry and discussion of better ways to increase the diffusion of federally funded university research.”

University Inventors Don’t Need More Entrepreneurial Education and Mentoring

Here’s how recommendations break out by stakeholder role. The first silo is that of university administrators and tech transfer offices; they want to maintain the current technology transfer model. Their recommendations focus on adding classes on entrepreneurship for faculty and grad students, plus putting together networking events with industry and VCs to connect faculty and grad students to industry coaches and mentors. The second most common recommendation from university officials is that the government fund university-based proof of concept centers, or POCCs, where early-stage university inventions can be developed to form startups or be licensed to an existing company.

The second silo is that of university inventors. Inventors do not want classes to teach them how to work with industry. Most universities already offer countless courses on how to be an entrepreneur, and a primary function of tech transfer offices and alumni groups is to set up a steady stream of networking events. Faculty and grad students are already closely tuned to industry, perhaps more than anybody else on campus. Despite popular myth, there’s never has been an Ivory Tower in engineering and science departments. For over 150 years now, engineering and science faculty and grad students have collaborated and been funded by their industry colleagues. When it comes to developing university research into a usable platform or product, it’s no different. The majority of licensing deals are brought to the university tech transfer office by the faculty inventor, not the other way around. At many major U.S. research universities, engineering faculty are given a full day off every week for industry consulting engagements. They also compete for industry research dollars. It’s not unusual to see a long line of professors in suit jackets, patiently standing in line in the hallway of the engineering quad, awaiting their 10-minute slot to pitch their research to a visiting rep from McDonnell Douglass or Kodak or DuPont.

The third silo is that of businesses. They recommend that universities improve their technology transfer process by offering quick and transparent license options, no administrative fees on technology licenses, fewer reporting requirements, and the removal of IP-related clauses and restrictions in university/industry collaborations. Most businesses do not want the university to give them access to a university-based proof of concept center. Their perception is that the technology development process is too iterative, consisting of several feedback loops between inventors and their industry colleagues. In contrast, proof of concept centers assume a linear development process and aren’t flexible enough to move as quickly as small businesses demand.

One RFI response that caught my eye was written by two university faculty from the University of California, Davis. They’re currently surveying a couple hundred faculty inventors at the University of Minnesota to ask them to share their experience and perceptions of the university technology transfer process.

“Given the importance of technology transfer and the latent problems that have emerged with this process, it is remarkable that there has been no comprehensive large N study of the experiences and perceptions of the inventors producing the inventions regarding the operation of their university Technology Transfer Office. Only through such a study will the data become available to make informed national decisions on how to increase the flow and utilization of taxpayer-funded research and the goal of increasing technology-based entrepreneurship.[i] ”

They raise a good point. University IP policies reflect the popular stereotype that university inventors don’t know how to work with industry. In their employment contract, faculty and grad students are required to hand off their research results to a central technology transfer office that will manage the patenting process, set a marketing strategy to find industry partners, and then write and negotiate any resulting licenses. University administrators justify the centralized control over technology commercialization by claiming that their faculty and grad students need oversight when they venture out of their academic Ivory Tower. Campus licensing staff work hard to cultivate strong and productive relationships with their faculty and grad students. However, at many universities (for various well-intended reasons), after handing over an interested business partner, the inventor is not allowed a seat at the negotiation table, nor permitted to read the resulting license for his or her own invention.

To bridge the disconnect between people involved with managing university inventions and technologies, we need to delve into why stakeholders offer such widely varying suggestions for improving the process. It will be difficult to get real traction on new and alternative models of university technology transfer until we get a better handle on why stakeholders are so disconnected from one another. How do inventors want to do tech transfer? What about their industry colleagues? Would-be entrepreneurs? What would be the best incentives? Should university inventors be permitted to take the lead on commercialization strategies and licensing options? What would be the most efficient operational arrangement? What if we opened up the university IP portfolio to third party agents who would manage the inventions the university-provided tech transfer office didn’t have time to manage?

If someone waved a magic wand and made you queen (or king) for a day, how would you set up the way our universities manage the research your tax payer dollars paid for? What do you need?

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[i] Response to OFFICE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY/NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL Commercialization of University Research Request for Information Part I: With Respect to University Research, Promising Practices and Successful Models. Dr. Martin Kenney, Department of Human and Community Development, University of California, Davis
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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.