More of a good thing?

faculty incentive

Stop Pushing Universities to License More Inventions – Businessweek.

This article argues that perhaps “we” (as in, the administrations of universities, and the government) are trying too hard to push research commercialization.The argument is primarily against special spending for programs and financial incentives to faculty encouraging them to pursue technology transfer. It is an interesting take on the question of university technology transfer…and I admit, I’m more than a little sympathetic to the views expressed. Which is unfortunate for me, since there are some who feel that my current role within the university is to find ways to “increase” commercialization levels on our campus.

Granted, I don’t consider this to be the essential role I play in this regard, but others would consider it a “failure” on my part if some metrics related to commercialization don’t “increase.” I tend to take a more balanced approach.  I don’t want to “increase” commercialization, per se. I am working to reduce or remove roadblocks to commercialization when there is a good opportunity to take some research findings to market. There may be unnecessary difficulties–generally caused by either lack of experience on the part of faculty or administrative or financial issues that limit the perceived upside to pursuit of commercialization. The article does a good job outlining the failure of “additional” incentives, and points out that the natural incentives exist for those cases where there is a big payoff–and as I often point out to faculty, those tend to be commercialized in spite of so-called barriers to the process. Most faculty aren’t overly influenced by the money argument anyway, although it falls under the category of “great if it happens.”

I’m not sure the article does justice to another aspect of the problem however. There are instances where there is a clear benefit to taking the research outcomes and making them available in the “real world” but there is not a clear “profit motive” to do so. Faculty may be very interested in seeing the results of their work applied and in being part of the effort to make this happen. They are doing research ostensibly to help “solve” problems in many cases. Often, this leads to a lot of confusion as to how the university might proceed. There a quite a few options to consider, such as:

  1. Publish the results and make them “freely available.”
  2. Pursue some kind of “open innovation” strategy that includes a level of intellectual property protection (such as open source licenses for software).
  3. Try to pursue commercialization through entrepreneurship, which may not include licensing of intellectual property.
  4. Pretty much do nothing but sometimes think about it, etc.

All of the options while somewhat straightforward can lead to paralysis by analysis and other common forms of deadlock. Especially if the people involved (the research team) are inexperienced and unfamiliar with the process. The researchers have a goal that is consistent with technology transfer and licensing, but without all of the pieces coming together properly.

For example, their response may be to publish, but this winds up being unsatisfactory because there is no clear transfer of an idea into use. If there is a decision to hold off publishing, it may be that there is a naive belief that they will be able to enter into a commercialization relationship, and if they can’t it wouldn’t be fair if “someone else” got to make money off of the “idea” from the university. Conversely, potential partners may be confused as well, if there is not a clear IP position that can be evaluated so they can make a decision to “license or not license.” There may be some strategies that the faculty can pursue in these cases, but as the article in Business Week points out, adding incentives doesn’t solve them.

The article further references an earlier publication, by Richard Jensen of Notre Dame and Marie and Jerry Thursby of Georgia Tech titled “Disclosure and licensing of university inventions: ‘The best we can do with the s**t we get to work with.’” (click here for this paper). The Businessweek article notes the following (emphasis added):

The title, taken from a comment made by one of the licensing officers, sums up what happens when you give universities an incentive to commercialize additional faculty inventions but you can’t do anything to improve the quality of the inventions themselves.

Now, you can perhaps characterize those situations that I refer to above in this way–the “inventions” are not of proper “quality” to license. As a licensing manager, I can help faculty work through the problems and see if there really is a diamond in the rough, but we can’t make a diamond out of a piece of coal.  But notice, a piece of coal can still be worth something. And it can still be important to someone, even if there is no clear-cut way to “commercialization” for that.

There are incentives for most licensing offices to work ONLY with faculty who have the “quality inventions” and no incentives for those same licensing officers to find a way to “work with” the so-call “s**t” as it were (note, I don’t approve of a licensing office using that attitude when referring to an invention disclosure–although I can feel a bit of empathy). So perhaps there is some room for universities to take some steps to encourage efforts at commercialization, and some of this may be in the form of incentives (although perhaps changes to incentives for licensing staff, not the faculty).

The moral of the story is that incentives aren’t necessarily the best answer in all situations, and as they say…be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.