Why Technology Transfer?

Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future.

James Bertrand

I have struggled with several issues related to technology commercialization activity with the university setting. For the most part, this has been limited to practical concerns–such as efficient process questions, or communication with all interested parties.  Yet it seems that there are some lingering issues with the “value” proposition–both in terms of the financial value (can you make money in technology transfer?) and in the intangible value (what do you learn, how do individuals experience growth or expanded opportunities through technology transfer?).  Everyone is motivated at some level to do those things that bring them value.  If there is no value, it is very difficult (even impossible) to convince others to take part.  For technology transfer in the university setting, this includes faculty, administration, and even students who must be willing if not enthusiastic participants in the commercialization activity. So I ask myself, why do it?  Why does the university “want” to support technology transfer?  Why should a research scientist devote time and energy toward working with the technology transfer office? 

So a very real concern for technology transfer practice is the ability to prove value to the larger community of the university.  Each person working within the institution has a role to fill, and contributions to make in fulfilling the mission of the university.  The overall mission of modern universities is typically described (with some variations) in terms of perhaps three primary goals: 

  • Education:  The most obvious mission of the university, students attend school to learn within a particular discipline or field, and educators/faculty members give them guidance and instructions.
  • Exploration:  Especially at larger institutions, this can be a primary goal, and sometimes on that is only nominally a lower priority than the goal of education.  For these institutions, the research function is a primary tool of “education” in the sense of discovering new knowledge.  There is an agenda to educate students on how to be innovative and creative in their own field (especially at the graduate level).
  • Engagement:  All of the education and exploration activities of the university are directed toward producing educated people whose work will make a difference in the real world.  Thus, the university normally attempts to engage directly with outside parties–corporations, government, non-profit–giving both students and faculty better opportunities to learn from the experience.

So where does technology commercialization fit in?  Perhaps in the exploration component?  After all, if  the exploration produces some truly innovative and valuable knowledge, the university is then positioned to benefit financially from the activity.  Or perhaps the best fit is within the realm of engagement?  Actively working to achieve “technology transfer” provides faculty and students with exposure to the reality of new product development, engineering, and marketing.

Still, it doesn’t seem to “fit” with the bigger picture of the university, or at least it’s still not a comfortable fit.  There are many reasons for this, and each poses a unique set of problems for those attempting to “do” technology transfer. These obstacles can be at the institutional level (e.g., the organization doesn’t have a strong commitment to the activity, so there is limited time and attention allocated in support of it).  The problem may be at the individual level, where a key person in the process (either a faculty researcher or someone in the administrative role) does not prioritize the activity. So for a while, I want to spend a bit more time looking into these issues–formulating the questions and looking for answers. 

Starting at the institutional level, why does the university want to engage in technology transfer? Who are the key individuals within the organization who really need to step forward and establish this activity as part of the university mission?  How does a particular university go about instilling a sense of value around the activities necessary to support technology commercialization? Finally, what are key motives that will keep all the parties engaged in support of the activity, in particular, faculty, staff and students?  There seem to be so many questions, it is difficult to know if you have even identified those that are truly critical.  Also, I think that most of us know a lot of “answers” to these questions, but perhaps there are other answers that deserve some examination.  In the end, my goal is simply to articulate the true value proposition to others within the university–faculty, students, and staff–who must in the end choose to participate, or not.  


Funnels, Filters, Pipelines, and Plumbing

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

John W. Gardner

Last week, I was attempting to put together a proposal for some informational materials on innovation and intellectual property.  I spent a good deal of time trying to understand the points that would be most interesting and enlightening for anyone who might wish to learn more about these topics.  As I am a firm believer in the “one picture is worth a thousand words” concept, I also looked at the usual analogies and illustrations that are typically employed.  I then realized that there were two leading visuals most often used in this context—the “idea funnel” and the “innovation pipeline.”   Upon reflection, I realized that simplistic use of either might result in naïve expectations.

The use of the idea funnel is normally used to show how multiple ideas are “poured” into an organization, and come out the other end as “innovative” products or services.  Normally, it looks something like this when used as a graphic.


Typically, this is meant to portray that many ideas enter the funnel, but just a few “come out” as products.  However, this isn’t the entire message—note that this graphic at least gives the impression that all the ideas going IN might (or must!) come out the other end.  In most cases, the “assessment” stage, or the “testing” stage are intended more as “filtering” processes, which actually REMOVE some of the ideas from the eventual flow out of the funnel.

You can try to change the graphic, and explicitly indicate the processes for filtering by adding a filter layer of some kind—like the paper liner inside the coffee maker.  It might then look more like this:


In this version, the inserted filter has a smaller opening, such that not everything can pass through, and the “ideas” are shown as two different types—ones that will not pass through (the ideas that do not successfully pass the assessment or testing stages, for example) and the ones that eventually come out as products.

Of course, there are problems with this version, but rather than dwell on those, I would like to look at the “innovation pipeline” concept in the same manner.  I rather like the pipeline imagery, and it seems to offer a better way to illustrate the concepts of innovation and commercialization.  An excellent example of this is shown below, from an article on the University of Michigan:



This one does a pretty good job of showing how much of the “input” (in the form of ideas and resources) comes together, resulting in the “outflow” at the end.  There are even “leakage” points to show that some of the inputs result in non-desired output or loss. But use of the “pipeline” concept in general may be no better than that of the funnel. 

For most people, the idea of a pipeline is move some material (fluid or semi-fluid) from one or more beginning points to the end point.  When the concept of innovation is discussed, however, most people presume that there is an active process by which the “input” is separated into “steams” representing the “viable” business prospects from the rest.  It’s not so much a pipeline as a plumbing system. I might represent it with a diagram like that for a typical home as below:


 Several features of this diagram are noteworthy.  First, the “input” water supply feeds into a main “control” feature (in this case the water meter).  Some of it is diverted to a water heater, so that there is an extra level of “functionality” now available.  Then, there are lines leading to several points of “use” for the water supply–thus, input material is converted into some form of “product.”  Some of these might be considered a higher value product (use in the kitchen sink where it might be consumed as a drink, or the washing machine perhaps, where it transforms dirty laundry into clean clothing). Other uses are still essential but are “lower tech” such as the use in the bathroom sink or toilet (where most of the input flows down the drain and is “wasted” in the process).

I was tempted to generate the plumbing graphic illustrating the university innovation/technology transfer process, but my skills as an artist are limited.  Obviously, there are also shortcomings to this conceptualization.  The water supply, naturally, represents the flow of ideas from faculty, students, etc., and into the “system.” Perhaps the “water meter” would represent the technology commercialization office, and the water heater might represent the patent protection process.  But what about further “upstream” for the supply?  Is there a “pumping” mechanism?  Is there a larger reservoir such that only a portion of the “supply” makes it into the system?

In the end, the usefulness of this sort of graphic is in communication—giving a common frame of reference for an activity or process that everyone needs to understand.  Since these are often used as a means of directing a group to higher levels of efficiency or success in the process, it is important that the key sources of inefficiency, or barriers to success, are illustrated appropriately.  These must be conceptualized in a fashion that also envisions the key to proper flow and management of the process, and in particular, to help the audience understand the points at which problems might be encountered, and how these might be overcome.  Otherwise, it is possible to leave the audience with just a pretty picture, and without insight for change.

Technology Transfer and the Third Way

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.

William Pollard

Today, I noted with interest several references to a recent work by Dr. Roya Ghafele (University of Oxford), entitled “Financing University Research: Waking a Sleeping Giant,” related to an analysis on the means to finance university research.



Granted, this sort of work does not seem to appeal to a broad audience, rather to those specialists in the fields of intellectual property and research commercialization. I dutifully followed each link, in order to read the original “paper” and found, to my surprise, that it was actually a rather sketchy PowerPoint presentation on the subject, 14 slides in all.  Still, given the immediate relevancy to my work, I read through it, hoping to find some useful insights to share.   I found that it raised some issues that are of interest to everyone working within the academic environment. 

First and foremost, the title itself refers to “financing” university research.  Every faculty member can empathize with the problem of securing funding.  The second slide, likely in the spirit of an executive summary, lists recommendations for institutional programs and policies.  Since this is in presentation format, I presume that these are a bit clearer with the attendant commentary.  On the third slide, the subject is introduced as follows:

The ‘Third Way’ of university research commercialization focuses on systemic change, rather than on single stakeholder intervention. It reflects a third generation of innovation policies that focuses on training, awareness raising and the leverage of cluster effects, rather than the development of physical infrastructure (i.e. science parks).

This is a unique approach that outperforms existing best practice in many ways; i.e. it focuses on the leverage of network effects among the various academic institutions, rather than repeating the traditional ‘one university – one commercialization’ approach.

In the rest of the slides, Dr. Ghafele presents a rough outline of current university practices in “research funding” (or research commercialization), adds an elaboration on the recommendations summarized in the second slide, and ends with a checklist for “impact assessment” to evaluate institutional progress toward implementing the recommendations.

I don’t want to reproduce the information in the presentation, but rather to highlight three points that it raises with respect to the “systemic changes” that she advocates as part of this “third way” of research commercialization.

Programmatic Recommendations

The work includes multiple programmatic recommendations for improving performance of the technology transfer function, grouped into five broad categories as follows 1) Incentive Structures, 2) Boundary Spanning, 3) IP Entrepreneurship Awareness, 4) Institutional Support, and 5) Adequate Funding.  Clearly, many of these presume that there is institutional and individual resistance to change, and that it will be necessary to overcome this in some way. It is truly difficult to argue with some of the recommendations (e.g., “promote incubators”) but it is equally difficult to imagine effective implementation of most. 

How effective is it, after all, to “Undertake Awareness Raising Seminars” when most of the audience does not yet recognize the relevance of the topic?  Naïve implementation of such recommendations would likely increase overhead costs associated with technology transfer (already recognized as an “unprofitable” activity at most institutions) and assessing the impact might be a formidable task. Can the potential benefits be demonstrated such that the intended audience will embrace training opportunities?  Or is it preferable for the administration to “mandate” the training for the university community?

Cost/Benefits analysis

Among several benefits predicted for these changes, are “number of spin offs created, revenues created through academic consulting, joint ventures, and licensing revenues.” In order to realized these benefits, the institution is asked first to assume some additional “costs” to carry out programmatic changes (including “Overhead costs, Administrative expenditures, Depreciation of capital assets, and Costs of complementary services related to policy”).  

A first observation is that while the list of benefits may not be intended as a comprehensive one, two of these—academic consulting and “joint venture” revenues—are not tracked by the conventional technology transfer process, or at least not well.  Likewise, the costs listed might be associated, at least in part, with the staffing and activity of the technology transfer office, but are presented as “in addition” to those costs.  There is an assumption that the current levels of spending on technology transfer are NOT directed toward the most effective practices. 

The short list of costs does not overtly include extra money for intellectual property protection—although it does seem to encompass increased levels of staffing for the institution.  So perhaps internal expertise on patent protection (patent agents?) might be part of these.  However, a good deal of the transactional friction in technology transfer is related to these direct costs for protection of intellectual property.  Notoriously, additional spending on patents does not directly correlate with increased technology transfer effectiveness; however, lack of an intellectual property asset to license effectively shuts down the technology transfer process.


 Finally, the third key point I would like to highlight is the emphasis on entrepreneurship as part of the “third way” answer set.  The limiting factors for establishing new ventures are related to the 1) resources (both human and capital) and 2) culture (or values).   Some of the recommendations are related to training to increase awareness (i.e., to change culture, influence values) and to increase skill sets (provide the human resource component, and develop entrepreneurial activity). In my experience, entrepreneurship is, indeed, a key part of any successful research commercialization effort.  Economic impact of new ventures is commonly recognized as a benefit to the wider community—local, state, or national—new job creation in particular. Yet this is still a very risky strategy for long-term success.

 Most universities are willing to fully embrace the tangible benefits, such as increased licensing revenue.  In the end, it seems that many of the “intangibles” are really at the heart of the issues raised.  There are “intangible” benefits that are not being adequately accounted for in the current practices (such as partnering opportunities that may result in commercialization). Likewise, there are “intangible” costs or obstacles to technology transfer (devoting time and effort to learning new skills necessary for entrepreneurship).   With most universities under pressure to justify their budgets and spending, administrators will be reluctant to divert money into channels without clear outcomes.

In conclusion, one key take away from the presentation is that we need to find ways to improve the cost/benefit analysis. In order to implement any of the recommendations, it is important to communicate the benefits ahead of time.  It is also critical to find cost-effective means of doing so, in order to justify the investment of even modest levels of funding for this purpose.  Then, if the recommendations are sound, it should be possible move forward, and reap the desired benefits.  In order to sustain progress, the efforts must be subject to continued review and improvement, both in terms of measured outcomes and allocation of resources.  There are very real benefits to be reaped from research commercialization by the university, but it will require commitment and discipline on the part of the individuals involved to realize the rewards.

Innovation and Inspiration

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
                          (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)

In the course of the past week, I’ve been thinking (I know, a dangerous habit) about how decisions are made.  Not mundane decisions like what to eat for breakfast, but the bigger decisions, like whether to accept a new job offer, take on a major new project. Of course, there is always  a basic cost-benefit analysis related to these. Some part of the decision-making process seems to be related to evaluation of perceived constraints (for example, I can’t take the new job, because I can’t justify the relocation of my entire family to Timbuktu).  Another aspect deals with real or perceived benefits (the salary is fantastic).  

The mysterious part seems to underpin the process–the values each person brings to the process. Is a higher salary really the primary motivating force for the decision?  Perhaps it is. Do you turn down an otherwise attractive opportunity because of the need to move to an area that isn’t particularly appealing?  Naturally, most people make some attempt to really sort through all the issues when faced with a direct and obvious decision.  However, it seems that many of our decisions fade into the background of everyday life.  These don’t seem like “bigger” decisions at all, and the choices are made on auto-pilot as it were. 

It’s easy to start each day with the intention of bringing energy and innovation to each task, but honestly, it’s so much easier to check your email and answer those.  Most people even think that all of this is getting them “where they want to go.”  Instead, it might be that it is getting them “somewhere” since that is where you get “if you only walk long enough.”  The process of technology transfer can be opaque and frustrating, and finding the motivation or inspiration to “start” can be daunting.  In fact, the demands of everyday life throw up roadblocks every step of the way.  Honestly, there are projects enough without adding “innovation” to the mix. Yet somehow, most of us want more than that for ourselves, and forget that the everyday decisions have a bigger impact on our lives than we might imagine. 

 Innovation requires that daily decisions include some harder choices be made, and this means finding motivation to actually reach the end goal or destination. The goal should be truly inspiring, it should be something we find so compelling, that we can find at least some time to devote to moving forward in that direction.  So that it likely the missing element for most of us. Without a deeper source of inspiration, and a goal that we keep our focus on, we keep moving ahead to somewhere, step by step.   I believe it is helpful in this regard to take a few moments each day to find sources of inspiration, whether it is reading an entertaining yet insightful blog, or having lunch with a thoughtful and intelligent friend who shares your interests.  But of course, then it is just as important to harness the energy of that inspiration, and make just a bit of extra effort to make sure you are heading “where you want to get to” and that you’ve taken a few steps in that direction.

Recommended Reading:

Physics of the Future:  How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100,  Michio Kaku

The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun

Lynchpin, Seth Godin  (not for everyone, of course, but hey, couldn’t leave it off the list!)

What is a “white paper”?

White paper, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A white paper (or “whitepaper”) is an authoritative report or guide that is often oriented toward a particular issue or problem. White papers are used to educate readers and help people make decisions, and are often requested and used in politics, policy, business, and technical fields

So why “Almost White Papers”? Well, for starters, these are really not “white papers” in the normal sense, but “White” papers–written by a particular White that is. These are only “almost” white papers, in the usual sense of the word, because my job is to educate and help people make decisions. In this case, decisions on critical issues of intellectual property protection and commercialization of research results.  This means exploring new ways to bridge the gap between the world of university research and the business world. My principal goal is to connect the world to the incredibly intelligent, talented, and innovative researchers working in the university.

For the most part, I will be sharing the insights that I have developed in a fifteen year career in university technology transfer. In fact, I will refer to works of people who have inspired and informed me in my work, and hopefully highlight key concepts for readers, whether faculty researchers or business leaders. I am writing with the goal of bringing together those two groups–to “pursue innovation–achieve impact.”