The Diversity of University Tech Transfer Strategy

by Melba Kurman

The Diversity of University Tech Transfer StrategyPeeling the research commercialization onion:   universities are the same but different

At the risk of stating the obvious, all universities are similar, but each one is different.  Just when you think you’ve got a key piece of university tech transfer strategy figured out — like peeling the proverbial onion — you unearth another layer you haven’t even considered.   (Actually, in this case, onions are much too stolid and predictable – maybe raking leaves on a windy day would be a better analogy.)  That’s why formal “one size fits all” tech transfer education and policy aren’t always productive once you get beyond the outer layers of the onion, er —  I mean the basic mechanics of the process.

Why am I thinking about onions, university technology commercialization strategy, and education?  I recently spent two days hunkered down in a classroom at the University of Utah with half a dozen tech transfer directors and administrators, plus Utah’s TechVenture’s staff, vice president Jack Brittain and director Bryan Ritchie.  In a nutshell:  I received a vivid reminder of the staggering degree of diversity in the U.S. university innovation system.

Prescriptive best practices weren’t part of the curriculum, though people shared solutions that worked for them.  This was not one of those somnolent, pedantic tech transfer seminars we’ve all sat through at professional  meetings.  Instead, we spent most of our time in intimate, free-wheeling conversations about the university technology commercialization process.  Unscripted information exchange is what makes real learning happen.

The rich and staggering diversity in the U.S. academic universe is what makes university innovation so fascinating, yet so hard to get right.  At the local ground level — where most technology commercialization takes place — strategies must be tailored to individual university environments.  Yet, much of the formal tech transfer education, literature and federal policy smudge all this diversity together into a vague, blurry mass, similar to the view from an airplane, where topographic detail gradually disappears as the flight takes off.

Somehow, to move the field forward, stakeholders must come together and think hard whether it’s possible to identify core ideas and insights that hold true across all types of university environments.  Maybe there aren’t any.  At the risk of falling into the trap of trying and failing to peel the technology transfer onion, in this article, I have written up ten core commonalities that I saw threading through the discussions at last week’s Utah TechVenture’s seminar.

This list contains a few nuggets of best practices but the value of these insights is that they raise more questions than they answer.  Maybe they will resonate with people who weren’t able to join us in Utah.

1.  New company creation starts with basic science, which leads to “liability of newness” and “liability of oldness”

University tech transfer, despite its core mission of pushing university research into practical use, must find a way to flourish amidst a culture of open research, scholarship, and teaching.  Commercializing the raw fuel of basic science, however, is a slow and complicated process.  Yet, exploratory scientific research remains the chief ingredient of university inventions, patents and new companies.

As one seminar participant put it, university startups and emerging technologies are a high risk investment — they’re new, untested, and unproven.  As a result, most university inventions have a “liability of newness” problem in the eyes of the world off campus.  The tech transfer challenge is to figure out how to “de-risk” university inventions.

In contrast, when facing inwards and dealing with academic culture, a technology transfer unit must “de-risk” the commercialization process, but in a different way.  The challenge is to convince university administrators (and sometimes inventors) to leave their comfort zones and step out into non-traditional, less familiar terrain of patents, products and startups.

Regardless of the size, age or mission of the university, the technology transfer office must stand with one foot planted in the open science of academic tradition, and one foot planted in the commercial world outside.  This brings me to the next point:  tech transfer is not about changing the campus culture; it’s about finding a way to productively fit into the existing culture.

2.  It’s not about changing the culture on campus, it’s about finding a productive niche

The tail can’t wag the dog.  A university’s tech commercialization strategy has to be one that serves university students, inventors, and yes, senior administrators.  Translational research, a popular buzzword these days, refers to scientific inquiry whose ultimate downstream purpose is practical application, to address and solve real world problems.  University tech transfer units already play a core role in translational research.  However, they should expand the notion of “translational” beyond just research and apply it to other university functions.

Tech transfer units can contribute to their university’s “translational teaching” by hiring undergraduate and graduate students.  No one claims that student interns are a replacement for a full-time professional.  But helping staff assess technologies and startup business plans offers students a opportunity to apply their classroom learning towards the messy and imperfect real world that awaits them after graduation. For example, at Utah, undergraduate interns qualify as university “work study” students and MBA students get a break on their tuition, plus a stipend to cover their living costs.

Translational faculty service is less cut and dried.  At several of the universities represented in the seminar, technology transfer units helped university inventors manage industry sponsored research grants, or provided web or marketing support for faculty startups.

3.  When a university researcher gives you their first invention disclosure, that’s the moment of truth

That is your first chance to impress them and if they’re not impressed, your last.  Simple.

4.  To steer the right course, you have to ask yourself, “how does my environment perceive me?”

Many people at the seminar said that this is *the* key question for tech transfer practitioners to ask themselves.  If you haven’t at least explored this question internally and honestly, then you’re not really in tune with the realities of your environment.  If you’re not in tune with your environment, it will be difficult for you and your staff to craft a coherent strategy to address any negative perceptions that may exist.

Figuring out how you’re perceived reminds me a bit of the wisdom your teachers may have shared with you in primary school, “you don’t like everyone, so not everyone’s going to like you.”  Not being liked is not pleasant, but no university unit, no matter what, is approved of universally.  Instead, the value of knowing how stakeholders perceive you is to figure how to react in a constructive way, even if you don’t agree with the perception.

For example, a common challenge faced by many people at the seminar was the faculty perception that “my tech transfer office is a black box.”  There’s no correct answer to this one, but one student said that good old fashioned face time worked well.  He visits his inventors, in person, in their offices at their convenience.

Another common faculty concern is the fact they hear lots of conflicting stories about what, exactly, happens should they choose to submit a formal invention disclosure.  Many universities respond with brochures that offer a walk-thru, plus a diagram of the tech transfer process.  This is a good start but does not answer the question of what  *really* happens if you decide to try for a patent or a startup.  One tech transfer unit lets other do the talking by asking a few well-respected commercially active faculty researchers to act as informal sounding boards and advisors to their colleagues.  The power and the risk of this approach is that the tech transfer office doesn’t get to script what’s said — faculty conversations take place behind closed doors.

Perceptions vary, but a constant variable is that change takes time.  A wise potential tech transfer director, if offered a job to turn the ship around, makes it clear to the hiring committee that change for the better will take at least 3-5 years.

5.  Big is not always good.  Do not “manage towards the home run”

Most university patent revenue — the big numbers advertised in the media — are from biotech patent deals that are few and far between.  A few universities have been fortunate enough to have earned hundreds of millions in licensing revenue over the years.  However, those big wins are the exception.

That’s why most people attending the workshop had a high-volume patent licensing strategy.  A large volume of quickly transacted patent licenses is more realistic than trying to guess which patents are going to be big earners.  No one can predict the winners.  A side-effect of being able to quickly turn around patent licenses is that an efficient process increased the odds of companies returning to sponsor research.

OK.  Here’s a best practice that seemed so sensible I decided to pass it along.  To feed his pipeline of research to companies, one attendee asks researchers to give him their unfunded federal grant proposals (there are lots of those lying around every faculty’s office) so he can make them available to potential industry sponsors.

Time! Due to space limitations, I need to pause, and temporarily end this article for now.  Next week I’ll post five more common themes that wove through the seminar discussions.  In the meantime, if you’d like to send me strategies, or write them up in the comment box, that you think have broad relevance to other university environments, go for it!  I’ll post them if you like.

There are as many correct strategies as there are university environments.  Regional conditions matter.  So do university size, budget, ranking, age of tech transfer unit, and local research strengths.  That’s why tech transfer strategies that are effective when used at a major medical center won’t work at a small teaching university that until now, has had no formal technology transfer programs.  Large public state universities, given their extra doses of strong pressure to contribute to their regional economies, need to bring research to the marketplace in yet another way.

There’s going to be an informal meet-up at AUTM to continue these discussions.  Contact Erik Lium (erik.lium@ucsf.edu) or Bryan Ritchie (bkritchie@tco.utah.edu) for more details if you want to drop in.   The next TechVentures seminar will be held in Salt Lake City in October, 16 – 19.

image credit: satishchennagoni.com
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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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