The Trouble with Technology Transfer

For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. Such folk see only one side of a thing.

      Jainism and Buddhism.


    68-69:Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

I’ve spent the better part of two weeks pondering some basic questions on the subject of “technology transfer”  at public univerisities–with the primary question being “is the system broken?” Of course, there is an assumption that it IS broken, since so many people seem to think it so.  Thus, assuming the technology transfer “system” needs fixed, the question becomes “how should it be fixed?” As always, I wanted to look for data, and wasn’t quite clear what data would be pertinent.  I also wanted input and thoughts from others, since as my mom sometimes reminded me “remember, you’re not always the smartest one in the room.”

So I met with a few of my colleagues, I called a few others, and did some reading (for those who don’t know me, when in doubt, I often look to a book).  I read “The Innovator’s Solution” by Clay Christensen and Michael Raynor. On my way to work, I listened to the audio version of one of Seth Godin’s books, Lynchpin for inspiration (audio versions of his books always seem better than the text version).  I skimmed mutliple blogs on the subjects of innovation, invention, and technology transfer.  A lot of the input I received from all sources seemed to confirm the assumption that the system wasn’t working. There were also a lot of opinions on how to improve the system, some best characterized as proposing an entirely new system. I began to sense that the “problem” was overwhelming in the complexity of the thing…so many moving pieces!

Recognizing that one can only gain so much from reading, I then asked myself some of the same questions. After all, I’ve been “doing” technology transfer for over fifteen years now, and I’ve run into more than a couple of instances where the conventional system didn’t seem to “work.” It seems that maybe technology transfer DOES work for certain parties, but not for others?  Or maybe the conclusion should be derived from The Innovator’s Solution–it works under certain circumstances, and not in others?  The insights lead to more questions.

On the other hand, there is one simple answer–technology transfer does work when the parties to a particular transaction or project agree that it will work.  Naturally, this means that each party recognizes or acknowledges the interests of the other parties, and thus, they are able to reach a common ground.  They agree on the roles each will take, and the “value” associated with those (e.g., the royalty rate). The trouble creeps in when one or more of the parties insists on a different view of the roles or the value (or both). It can be terribly difficult work to find an “answer” that will satisfy everyone. 

For example, a faculty member might insist on a higher share of the income, or  maybe the prospective corporate licensee insists on a lower than expected royalty rate (one that allows for more benefit to accrue to the bottom line of the company).  In these cases, the licensing  office, the party who is “doing” the transaction, may be frozen.  Perhaps the university administration insists that policy or legal restrictions are more important than reaching a deal–what can the technology transfer group do? They don’t have the authority to override policy.  Even if they attempt to raise the issue for discussion, the administration might resist–they don’t see the need for an “exception” in this case.  Further, how much time do they really want to devote to make an alternate decision?

Everyone probably remembers hearing in school, a poem about  several blind men asked to describe an elephant, and each attempts to do so by touching the part of the animal which is closest.  While there are several versions of the story, this is often used as a parable to illustrate how a group of people can approach a question ostensibly on the same subject, and come away with different answers.  If each party is too focused on those issues most critical in their own view,the group may be unable to reach consensus on how to proceed.  At that stage, there is no way to reach agreement. Or if an agreement it is reached, it might represent too many concessions by one of the parties. 

However, in most of the instances I have encountered, the problems did not seem insurmountable at heart.  Rather, it was more often the case that one or more of the parties appears to have little incentive to work through the issues raised.  Like the blind men in the Buddhist version of the story, they are reduced to “quarrelling” and not negotiating. If  each party to a technology transfer deal approaches it with the intention of truly “understanding” the proverbial elephant, it doesn’t guarantee success, but at least success is an option.