Research and Enterprise

“Enterprise.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2015. <;
en·ter·prise ˈen(t)ərˌprīz/
a project or undertaking that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky
readiness to engage in daring or difficult action :  initiative <showed great enterprise in dealing with the crisis>
a :  a unit of economic organization or activity; especially :  a business organization
b :  a systematic purposeful activity <agriculture is the main economic enterprise among these people>

I often begin a blog post with a “true confession” type of statement.  Usually, I’ve read an article that made me think, sometimes the article is another blog (I only read a couple of blogs regularly, and I do so because they are the ones that make me think most!).  I’m normally content to allow others to express insights and thoughtful commentary on a particular topic, and save myself the time and trouble of posting anything at all. However, I’ve found that reading another person’s blog is more often the “inspiration” for a posting of my own, and then I hesitate to post my own blog. I don’t really want to be derivative, thus, I post less often. So, I’ve managed to begin a blog, and then pretty much drop it for months.

Yet I find myself coming back, mostly because I feel there are still a lot of topics where there is an ongoing struggle to come to terms with some decision-making, especially related to academic research, intellectual property protection, etc.  In the past weeks, I’ve done a bit of cursory reading on several topics that are part of some student team projects I help manage, under the umbrella programmatic theme of “Innovation to Enterprise.” The teams are each assigned a project from a faculty research group, and they are asked to explore the commercial potential of these projects. Most of the students are entirely new to the concept of “technology transfer” and have no clear understanding of new ventures or entrepreneurial activity. The students find it challenging to begin their projects, and they are frustrated when they realize that, more often than not, the results of the research are so tentative or nebulous that they can’t draw proper conclusions.

I once dealt with a company who expressed a similar frustration. They were working with researchers under an agreement that provided them with rights to review certain “Invention Disclosures” and gave them a set time for making a “decision” on whether (or not) they wish to license the “intellectual property” associated with the disclosure. At one point, I dutifully called for their response on a particular disclosure, as I was expected to make a recommendation for next steps based on their decision.

The CEO was a bit shrill when he replied, more or less, that there “isn’t enough information” to decide.

His response wasn’t unreasonable on the face of the matter–the disclosure probably DID NOT include enough information to make a “decision.” On the other hand, I was accustomed to making similar decisions with much less information. Perhaps  I was less than sympathetic in this instance, since some company contracts lawyer had inserted these decision deadlines as a way to keep both the tech transfer office and the academic researcher on some kind of “leash” as it were. There were too many points at which the research path and the commercialization strategy diverged. The company wanted a nice comfortable “oversight” role in the research without being directly involved, at least until they could make THEIR decision.

The scientists were too busy making their own decisions–about publications, conference presentations, grant proposals–to bother with the “tech transfer stuff” as part of the mix. To complete the muddle, the structure of the tech transfer office, and the IP policy, greatly restricted the ability of the researchers to make their own decisions on that aspect of their projects. They didn’t spend much time thinking about intellectual property since it was explicitly not considered part of their “job” in any practical sense. So for the scientists, lobbing off a few half-baked invention disclosures might be their entire contribution to fulfilling the contractual obligations involved. Some researchers might unilaterally decide that commercialization isn’t a serious option, or at least not one they wish to pursue. Thus, they will go about their work without making an effort to consider intellectual property except within the context of research and publishing–plagiarism, that sort of thing.

It is, ultimately, the decision of the researchers to start the commercialization process. Even without the terribly drafted contract and commercial “partner” I wouldn’t have expected the research group to be super diligent about getting a properly drafted invention disclosure into my hands. When a researcher does make a decision to pursue commercialization, the existing academic infrastructure does not support that direction. How could you possibly justify putting time and effort into that doesn’t earn you the “rewards” of academia? Not always the case granted, as some researchers do manage to come to terms with the awkward system, and are interested and/or motivated to move forward with commercial development. Fortunately for my student teams, the projects they are working on fall into that latter category. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the process any less opaque.

It’s like sporting event where all the researchers are players  who start by playing one game, and at some mysterious signal, shift to playing another game with different rules. More confusing, a whole new set of players arrives, in the form of the technology transfer office, the patent attorneys, sometimes even corporate partners and investors. So the challenge is finding a way to make decisions that are consistent within the context of the situation, recognizing that many of the parties are still learning how to play a game with some obscure rules.

The researchers may be quite willing to work with a tech transfer office, or anyone frankly, who is willing to step in to make decisions necessary for the business development effort. That doesn’t mean they have made enough effort to understand the process so that  their own work is directed toward that end. In general, academic research isn’t directed toward the same ends as business development, and even if it were, business development isn’t that easy either. If it were, everyone would step up and start their own company, develop wonderful products and reap the rewards. It’s obvious that even the most motivated entrepreneurs can enter the market with a new product to be met with indifference on the part of their desired customers.

My goal, as it has been since I took my first job in “technology transfer” 20 years ago, is to make sure that the decisions made by the people involved are the best ones they can make, with the information available at any point. This may result in decisions that aren’t consistent with certain institutional metrics for commercial enterprise–numbers of disclosures, stories of successful startup ventures–but hopefully those decisions are ones that best serve the goals of the research enterprise, which is, in the end, the goose that is supposedly laying golden eggs. (But I begin to mix my metaphors, or something like that, so will close for now).