Successfully using small-scale, high risk, high reward pilot programs
by Melba Kurman
The President of the Windows Division at Microsoft, Steve Sinofsky, is fond of saying “don’t ship the org chart.” What does that mean? It means your product or service (in the software business, a product is completed when it is “shipped” to customers) should reflect your customers’ needs, not your organization’s internal structure and politics. Revenue-dependent organizations such as businesses, intuitively understand this, and if they don’t, they go out of business. It’s not so simple for university business units such as the technology transfer office. On campus, university business units are the campus administrative units that don’t teach or do research.
Let’s start with the org chart part. U.S. research universities are split into two major service areas: the teaching and research portion (faculty and students) and the administrative portion (the university workers who run programs, handle grant applications, process student applications, athletic coaches, and high-level figureheads such as college Deans and the President). In the U.S., almost all formal university technology transfer efforts are housed in the university’s research division. University research divisions are part of the administrative camp, meaning division employees are academic staff who don’t teach or do research and typically contain one or more of the following service units:
- The unit that processes the paperwork for faculty grant applications for research funding
- The unit that processes the grant money if a faculty successfully gets research funding
- The unit that takes care of the lab animals on campus
- The unit that keeps an eye out for potential conflicts of interest of university employees
- … and the technology transfer unit
So somehow, a tech transfer unit buried deep within an administrative division that handles mostly internal university paperwork and research-related logistics, is supposed to successfully meet the following lofty expectations of its stakeholders:
- Stay on top of the fast-moving world of IP issues and changing licensing paradigms
- Deeply understand the potential market value of each disclosed university technology
- Launch and run highly visible marketing campaigns for a few thousand active university inventions
- Win tough negotiations quickly against top notch corporate IP lawyers
- Write and oversee quick processing of high quality patent applications
- Make sure licensees are paying their bills on time
- Build strong networks of business people, entrepreneurs and VCs since as is commonly stated, “university tech transfer is a contact sport.”
- Respond quickly and effectively to stakeholder questions and problems
Is it working? Are university tech transfer offices shipping the above services or are they shipping their org chart? Would you be reading this if they were shipping the above services? Would I be writing this? Probably not.
However, university tech transfer offices are not the root of the problem: finger-pointing doesn’t help anybody. In fact, given the Bayh Dole’s ambitious and open-ended mandate to “take this early stage university research and make sure it gets used somewhere in industry,” it’s a tribute to the determination and grit of university tech transfer professionals that they have managed to tackle as many of these goals as they have. Kudos to them. The Bayh-Dole Act was a bold and wonderful experiment, but it did not provide a clear set of instructions, nor did it earmark federal funding to pay for an on campus technology transfer unit. As a result, without a clear roadmap, funding, and without the ability to think and behave like a real, for-profit business, university tech transfer offices have been tasked with a set of spectacularly unrealistic goals. If you read the mission statements of most university tech transfer offices, they appear to be additionally tasked with several grand but hopeless missions: 1) help the greater good and 2) foster regional economic development and 3) enrich the university and faculty inventors.
So what should we do? What do successful companies do when customer feedback indicates they’re shipping a their org chart, a product that reflects their internal politics and processes rather than what their customers want? Here’s what happens at Microsoft. First, it’s internally trumpeted that there’s a threat on the horizon – that things need to improve (yes, employees are *encouraged* to point out what could be better and paranoia is commonplace). Internal working groups take shape (not assigned committees; instead teams form organically as people with needed skills are swept into the group via gravitational force). If you’re useful (yes, useful – adding value is the key currency, not your title), you become part of the internal working group. At the senior levels, execs and sales people fan out and do as many customer visits as they can handle in a few weeks. The internal working group continues to pull together the learnings, dig into existing data and if there’s time, unearth new information. People are assigned to learn what the competitors eat for breakfast. Potential alternative strategies are synthesized and sketched out. Finally, a rough course-correct strategy is crafted and then there’s a re-org: people get a new manager, a few people are promoted and a few people are fired. If all goes well, the product improves and the customers no longer have to struggle with a product that embodies the company’s internal machinations.
This kind of “all hands on deck” response is impossible to coordinate in a major research university, not to mention across several. Universities are built to stay the same over long periods of time, not to turn on a dime. That’s part of what makes them great, their longstanding traditions and ivy-covered walls. University administrative units are notorious for shipping their org chart rather than a killer product, but they’re immune to the forces of industrial Darwinism since they’re not reliant on revenue from paying customers.
Though the wheels turn slowly in the land of large, non-profit organizations, they are slowly starting to spin. Last week the National Research Council released a major report, “Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest,” (their conclusion was that everything’s ok – just a few things need to be fixed, but heck, at least they were thinking about things). Another indicator of change is the almost 100 U.S. research universities that responded to the OSTP RFI about university technology commercialization. Good for them. I hope that more university tech transfer (hands-on) practitioners speak up. After all, the people doing the work know their customers the best and so far, they’ve done a unheralded job of wrestling with a tremendously complex, contradictory and demanding set of expectations.
Melba 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.