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.  

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