Is Stanford still a university? | LinkedIn

Is Stanford still a university? | LinkedIn.

The End of Stanford?

Both of these short “editorial” pieces ask an interesting and somewhat philosophical question about the role of the university in student “entrepreneurship.” The linked articles (by Nicholas Thompson, editor at Newyorker. com and Stanford alum) question some of the more “intense” levels of involvement that many universities are embracing, with schools like Stanford as our role models. Now, I’ve always tried to resist using “what Stanford does” as a yardstick–I even included a nice little slide in one of my presentations, showing little lemmings jumping off a cliff with a cartoon balloon from one shouting as it fell “…well, Stanford does it!” But the urge to follow their lead is almost irresistible.

At its heart, this is nothing more than a bit of “peer pressure” since every university is looking to establish a reputation–presumably a “good one” too–showing how their own activity reflects the “best” new practices. In some cases, it may be near impossible to replicate these practices (we’re no Silicon Valley) so at least that provides some protection from following all the yellow brick roads “we” see. It’s easy though, to wish your own institutions of higher education could collect all the accolades that a school like Stanford receives.

After some reflection, I realized that the piece reminds me a bit of the book I’m reading” (audiobook format as usual these days, so “listening to” is more precise) “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (click here for his website and here for the Amazon link to the book–note I am not an Amazon affiliate, just being helpful). Now, that is a bit of a leap, but I tend to think that way, so it’s not surprising if you know me very well at all!

In the book, which I confess to not having finished as yet, Nassim Taleb refers to a phenomenon he calls “lecturing birds on how to fly” and makes some very disparaging references to Havard Business school faculty (not Stanford faculty, but I’m betting he would do so if he wasn’t more centered on the east coast). In many ways, his argument is also along the lines of a  sort of “chicken and egg” situation (even though chickens don’t fly).  As I see it, a school like Stanford provides a lot of opportunities that “attract” very entrepreneurial students, very smart ones at that, and then the “university” manages to get those little entrepreneurial birds to fly. Many other universities then follow Stanford’s lead on how to teach their own students the Stanford way of entrepreneurship, since it has such great success.

If you look at it that way, it seems that some of the things critiqued may be simply circumstantial, and Stanford isn’t really “doing” anything except meeting some expectations of the students already there.  Is this “harmful” to Stanford in some way, as Mr. Thompson is pointing out?  Perhaps, but it may be more true to say that Stanford is being given credit for ‘causal’ influence that isn’t there. In some cases, maybe there is also a negative impact on students (or more precisely, on their education). Certainly, I think it’s a good idea to ask the questions…but is someone going to try to find an answer?  Regardless, it serves as one more example for me to use when people try to propose the next “me too” model for my own programs or projects.

This is hard to resist–who among us doesn’t feel the need for validation that takes the form “well, I found out that X is doing things this way”? As happened regularly, I was once contacted by a colleague at another university (no names), who was engaged in a contract negotiation with a company.  The company had cited my own university as an example of a peer who had “agreed to these terms” so she called me to confirm.  One of the reasons she did so was that the terms seemed to be “less desirable” and she seemed to suspect the company was not telling the entire truth. Now, at this point, I didn’t want to get into exactly what my organization had (or had not) agreed to, since there were too many complicating issues to explain.  But I did give her one piece of advice that seemed to help.  I told her, “Just go back with–even if “University X” agreed to those terms, that’s not a good reason for us to agree.”   As I explained, there might BE good reasons for her to accept those terms, but the company needed to work through those specific reasons with her–not just “by reference” insist that since another university agreed, it was OK.

Otherwise, I am continuing to “read” the Taleb book, and I hope that there are some more interesting issues raised.  As I understand, Nassim Taleb is nothing if not interesting, and I’m looking forward to learning more about some of his insights on innovation.


Philosophical Musing….

Again, I find myself inspired to post here, after reading one of Gerald Barnett’s most recent blog postings, Five Defects in Persistent Readings of Bayh-Dole | Research Enterprise.  Early in the post he makes a statement that really struck a nerve with me (emphasis added):

I made this list of serious defects in characterizations of Bayh-Dole in the academic and popular press. Why do these persist? It must be that there are folks who really want to promote defective readings of the law.

Why did this strike me in particular?  It took me a few minutes to think that through.  First I realized that my experience in technology transfer was a key factor.  In the first few years of my career, I certainly mirrored exactly the same “reading” of Bayh-Dole because most of the training and mentoring I received was from people who understood the legislation in this manner. It is part of “our” professional identity to understand and communicate the essence of the legislation that was the foundation upon which our technology transfer offices were built.

After those first years, I became less concerned with any “essential” truths on Bayh-Dole as my job focused primarily on details–making decisions on patent applications, reviewing patent prosecution correspondence, meeting with new inventors, negotiation of licenses (or executing the more common agreements, non-disclosures, MTA’s, etc.). Professional development centered upon attending conferences and workshops which either 1) repeated the conventional wisdom on Bayh-Dole, or 2) focused narrowly on the technical side (patent law, etc.). It isn’t unusual for anyone to get caught up in the day-to-day activity and feel little or no interest in reflection upon something that has ceased to be a question.

Unfortunately for me, I am often “accused” of over-thinking on pretty  much any issue or subject. Also, I am more inclined to question conventional wisdom than most. I am not particularly impressed with arguments that have little in the way of DATA to support them. Of course, I wouldn’t t let that get in the way of the daily routine. I managed to continue with the meetings with inventors, whether (or not) I “believed” in all the myriad “assumptions” of the legal foundations and how the legislative underpinnings were supposed to work.

Admittedly, I was sometimes at a loss when asked to really “justify” some of the policies and processes I was expected to operate under.  I could honestly agree with, or at least provisionally consider, many of the opposing viewpoints–for example, why did the university policy require faculty to assign all patent rights to the university?  How can the policy state that faculty will own copyright in most of their work, but then add provisions where the university claims a specific work?

If I had reservations about whether these issues were being dealt with “rightly” I mostly kept them to myself. After all, if I raised doubts with the wrong person, their conclusion might be that I didn’t really understand my job, especially if they bought into the conventional thought on the subject. In a few instances, when I did at least highlight some of the more problematic points, there was little interest in making changes–and for a variety of reasons.  For example, policy was too difficult to change, and no one understood it anyway. Besides, there I was again–thinking too much, and asking too many questions.

This gets to the heart of why I pretty much left well enough alone. It was easier to keep on track with everyone else, and I didn’t really have the energy (or the commitment) to do more. I focused on the technical side, glossed over those pesky “principles” and just tried to approach each projects from a common sense point of view. It could be fairly uncomfortable, but I’m generally more tolerant of that sort of ambivalence.

With respect to Bayh-Dole, I’m willing to bet that many others in same position will either 1) avoid questioning conventional dogma, or 2) insist upon the innate truth of said dogma. Perhaps this does result in their promotion of “defective readings of the law.” I may find it regrettable, but I also find that I can sympathize with them to point. It’s hard to come to an unconventional conclusion and attempt to stick to it–especially if there is some chance that you will come to an incorrect conclusion, or at least a certain percentage of people will judge you to be “wrong.” Even when I do find myself coming to unconventional conclusions, I often default to discreet silence and not publicly expressing my doubts. However, by my silence, it’s possible to conclude that I am contributing, albeit passively, to promoting the opinions that others are more aggressively voicing.

This was the point that made me pause in reading Gerry’s original  blog entry. What, precisely, do I really “believe” and what should I then do about it?  I have to think more about the subject, and that I will leave for another posting.

Free Agency Angst

First thing, I’ve meant to be more consistent with posting, but got caught up in launching a small “idea pitch” competition for students.  It was a good experience, and fun was had by all of course, but I didn’t see daylight for the past couple of months.  However, as my schedule has returned to normal in the past week, I noted increased discussion in technology transfer circles on the subject of “free agency” and the rise of a more concerted “just say no” campaign. Ordinarily, I would steer clear of the subject—for me, it falls into the cateogry of a subject better left alone if there isn’t a good chance to have a calm and reasoned discussion. On the other hand, I’m not ever clear that the subject truly is “free agency” (whatever most people mean by that) or if it gets back to the “Stanford v Roche” questions on ownership of inventions made by university researchers. The two are, of course, linked.  But ownership of intellectual property should be a question that can be answered factually.

I won’t make any attempt to revisit Bayh-Dole legislation, or the Stanford v Roche decision, and interpret those in any way–Gerald Barnett  is doing this with much more rigor than I would be willing to devote to the effort.  I would just say the answer is along the lines of “in a particular case, figure out who owns the intellectual property.”  The owner of the intellectual property—whether by right of inventorship, by contract or voluntary assignment, or by any other means of acquiring ownership which you might imagine—is entitled to make decisions on how to manage the rights. Free agency is actually the default option when the inventor(s) own(s) intellectual property.  But so what?

In the end, you simply have to ask, what are the real goals of university technology transfer?  Intellectual property protection is really meant to help market investment, to develop innovations more quickly and efficiently.  The party who makes the product/market development investment does so with some assurance that an enforceable patent will allow for at least a moderate period of uncontested market share—at least in theory. Since universities generally cannot take products directly into the market, and since an inventor rarely has the experience or resources to do so, licensing of patents is the default mechanism for inventions originating from university research. In my experience, the primary reason that faculty researchers are interested in technology transfer is to see that their knowledge is transformed into a real world solution to a problem.  They choose to work with any licensing agent (whether internal or external) only if it seems there will be more benefit than bother associated with the activity–that is, when they feel strongly about getting a product developed and on the market.   This may. or may not, include an expectation of significant financial rewards as well.

I’m very supportive of the licensing staff at most universities; after all, that is the role I’ve served for over sixteen years.  I know all about the constraints and obstacles facing technology transfer efforts. I understand that a lot of the so-called “failure” there is rooted in circumstances that can’t easily be addressed (such as lack of funds to staff the office, or for prosecution of patents). Thus, it isn’t obvious that free agency will solve specific issues and problems with commercialization of university inventions, anymore than salads at fast food places solve the so-called epidemic of obesity.  However, as much as we might hate to admit it, there are too many problems with management of intellectual property in a university setting to ignore. There may be lots of arguments against current proposals for so-called “free agency” but I find it difficult to oppose considering the model, at least in some form.

Even  if free agency is an option, faculty would need to be motivated by other considerations to take advantage of their “freedom.” Since many of the free agency models are only dimly conceived—Who, exactly, are these “agents”? And how would they engage with faculty?–it would be necessary to think through the consequences of how a particular model was implemented. Many of the free agency proposals seem to assume that the “successful” university systems would be open to managing the patents for others. On that front, I cannot imagine that a university would allow their technology transfer office to work with another university’s intellectual property on a regular basis.  Of course, joint ownership is an exception, but even then I’ve known it to work both ways. There are multiple cases where I was perfectly content to allow another university to “take the lead” but was met with resistance from the other side, where my counterpart was hoping my office would manage the intellectual property.  It can be a great temptation to have someone else bear the expense, and be the bearer of bad tidings when a decision is made not to file a patent, etc..  Thus, it wouldn’t seem that free agency is always a bad deal for the technology transfer office.

So why not take a serious look at the model and see how it might be implemented to advantage in a particular situation? I doubt that this means a complete shutdown of the technology transfer offices. There are many facets of intellectual property management that the university will still want to deal with directly, and until there are more examples of specific routes for faculty to pursue, the existing licensing office will be the first stop–how else will faculty know where to go? It might not be a very attractive option for faculty when such a system is implemented at first, due to simple inconvenience and lack of other options. Of course, there are a few independent licensing groups, and sometimes attorneys can freelance this sort of work, but these aren’t simple options for the average faculty member to find and evaluate. Even if you work in this arena for many years, it can be difficult to engage with a suitable partner. Further, the terms of such a relationship might be a significant barrier—exactly how much does this option cost faculty?

Honestly though, I think it is worth the experiment. If the benefits of this kind of arrangement do outweigh the “free” option of the local university licensing office, how can you argue with this? I won’t, however, hazard a guess at this stage on how effective the free-agency model will be in practice.  After all, if the primary and most obvious “agent” available is still the university’s own technology transfer office, or at least the closest “bigger” university office,  it’s not clear this will result in great change.  Still, I think there is room for innovation in technology transfer itself, not just in the research results from the university laboratories.

Technology Transfer…Taking the High Road?

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, photo by Patrick Mackie

The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low (road)

 And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye

Fir me an’ my true love will ne-er meet again

On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’.

In the course of any particular day, I am often approached with very general questions on topics related to technology transfer.  I am expected to serve faculty, staff, and students as a resource for information. In particular, this is meant to ensure that they fully understand the issues and processes, and can more effectively engage in commercialization activities. Unfortunately, this means that the questions posed may range from the legal/technical “what is meant by ‘prior art’?” to the more esoteric issues associated with policy and decision-making, such as “how can we become more successful in spinning out new ventures?”

Of course, the latter sorts  are the ones that keep spinning around in my head, since in many cases even I have difficulty with a clear, concise, answer.  In large part, this is because I recognize the inherent problems with decision making in these situations.  The real question being asked in some of the situations is “what is the RIGHT thing to do?”

At the heart of any decision is an effort being made to choose an action in pursuit of some goal.  In order to do so successfully, the decision maker must:

  1. Clearly articulate the goal
  2. Identify options available for some active choice
  3. Understand the consequences of those alternative choices
  4. Evaluate other factors which might impact the final decision process

In this general sense, many decisions are conceptualized as a “cost-benefit” analysis, with the decision-making process focusing on the relative gain attendant upon a choice relative to the loss or “expense” involved.

Obviously, some decisions can be made using much simpler processes, such as a coin toss. Such decisions are often made by single person, on matters with little impact on either that individual or anyone else (yes, I would like iced tea to drink), and no complications.

Australian Rules Football match at Hyde Park, London, on 8 January 1944. Source:  Australian War Memorial

 This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.

Other decisions, however, require extraordinary efforts directed toward fact-finding and analysis, along with multiple meetings of large groups of people who must conform to a formal structure for coming to a decision.  This sort of decision is likely to impact larger groups, or have potential consequences that justifies investment of time and energy into making the best choice possible. Furthermore, this may involve individuals or groups with widely divergent opinions on what constitutes the “best” choice.  Frequently, the decision is couched in terms of “right” and “wrong” such that there is an unfortunate attribution of possible fault and blame attendant upon the choice.

For decisions related to technology transfer, the process can be extremely complex.  Choices may be constrained in various ways that are uncomfortable for those involved. The culture of academia can also play a larger role than is typically appreciated—this may amount to a set of “almost sacred” values held by some of the people involved. Frequently cited values in academia include “academic freedom” and “dissemination of knowledge,” but there are many variations along these lines, attributing a sort of “purity” of thought and intentions to the academic world.  If technology transfer decisions are subjected to this sort of “good vs. evil” analysis, there will be individuals on both sides of the question claiming the moral “high ground” as it were.   Suddenly, it becomes difficult to decide which position constitutes the “high road” and which the “low road.”

This is further complicated when you realize that perhaps no one knows which road—the “high” or the “low” one—is “better” in some absolute sense.  As the Wikipedia article points out, there may be different interpretations brought to the imagery.  The low road is sometimes equated with death, the soul of the departed Scotsman returning home, so the traveler on the “high road” may be making a more expeditious choice, but not necessarily a “better” one.  There is a sort of moral judgment implied of course, but there remains room for speculation on the relative values demonstrated.

A recently published study [Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Vol. 367, No. 1589. (5 March 2012), pp. 754-762] confirms that the brain actually processes decisions differently if the choices involve “sacred” values held by a particular person.

Economic, foreign and military policies are typically based on utilitarian considerations. More specifically, it is believed that those who challenge a functioning social contract should concede if an adequate trade-off is provided (e.g. sanctions or other incentives). However, when individuals hold some values to be sacred, they fail to make trade-offs, rendering positive or negative incentives ineffective at best.

Obviously, this is true for university policy as well.  As the authors in the study point out, policy decisions are seldom made with any degree of introspection on the possible difference in value judgments on the subject in question. The study concludes that there is a problem encountered when attempting to evaluate certain choices when viewed against deeply held convictions–the brain simply doesn’t process this sort of decision well.  The entire process takes a different track so to speak.

Given this understanding, it’s easy to see how difficult the choices might be for university technology transfer.  In fact, there may be surprisingly little effort made to analyze some of the “defacto” decisions made, under guidance of existing policies. In worst case scenarios, policy is wielded as a weapon (either against a faculty member or a potential licensee!) and the university (technology transfer) agents are derided for being “inflexible.”  The university representatives feel it is a matter of taking a stand, holding positions consistent with their understanding of their institutional policy. They are held to this standard for making the decision. No matter how “reasonable” the tech transfer office might wish to be, university administrators can be hostile to suggestions that policies provide for flexibility—after all, what would be the point in having a policy then?

Thus, when I am posed a question that has at its heart, a possible conflict with the deeply held values inherent to the academic world, I tend to hesitate in providing answers. While not  “sacred” on par with belief in a deity, there is sometimes an undercurrent of feeling that technology transfer involves something “not right” in the context of the presumed mission of the university. For some researchers, a decision has already been made that commercialization is “good” for the university, and much of the decision-making process defaults to typical “cost-benefit” categories.   But there will be faculty for whom this kind of answer is insufficient.  In order to work with them, to give real answers to their questions, it is important to realize that technology transfer is perceived as putting a price tag on something that isn’t even on the market.  I do try to respect this position and in the course of doing my job, attempt to bring clarity and consensus to the decision-making process in technology transfer.  Even when I’m tempted to just toss a coin!

University Technology Transfer and Unintended Consequences

In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the outcomes intended by a purposeful action. The concept has long existed but was named and popularised in the 20th century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton.

Unintended consequences, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In popular discourse, people often refer to “the law of unintended consequences” when debating the merits or shortcomings of a particular decision, or course of action.  Like any sufficiently interesting and yet complicated subject, it can be difficult to fully grasp what is really at the heart of such references.  It recently struck me that this is, in part, at the center of the many debates on the proper role of the university in commercialization of scientific research.  The initial inspiration for this post comes from a blog posting by Gerald Barnett (Research Enterprise, Oh, to be the happy dog again–side note, I try to read Gerry’s blog as often as possible and recommend it highly). In my experience the technology transfer office may be trying to accomplish goals that are not clearly defined or, as highlighted by this posting, are actually in conflict with some of the other goals of both the university administration and the faculty researchers.

It is all too easy to get swept up into the rhetoric on how the Bayh-Dole Act allows universities to “benefit” financially by licensing patents arising from federally sponsored research. From that basic premise arises a series of decisions and actions with consequences, both intentional and unintentional.  As the Wikipedia article summarizes the concept, unintended consequences can be roughly grouped into three types:

  • A positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall).
  • A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).
  • A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse), such as when a policy has a perverse incentive that causes actions opposite to what was intended.

Note, this summary presupposes that not all “unintended consequences” are negative.  However, these tend to be the consequences that are eventually cited as unintended—nearly every positive outcome of a particular decision or action has someone claiming it as his or her own particular intention. Unfortunately, many perceive this as a challenge to make “better” choices, and so to avoid the negative consequences.

Thus, the technology transfer offices confidently point to “success stories” from the cannon of technology transfer gospel as a model for their particular University to embrace—whether that is actually a viable alternative or not.  Various University officials or administrators then look to the tech transfer “operation” as a source of alternative income, one that is desperately needed, and begin to expect ever-improving “metrics” in terms of licensing performance.  If your office realized licensing income of $10M last year, what are the projections for the following year?  What is the projection for next year, and the years after that? Why was there a drop of $2M this year versus the prior year?

If the technology transfer office produces alternative metrics—numbers of licenses, startups founded, patent applications filed, or issued patents—they are likewise put on a track to reproduce or improve those metrics year after year.  Often, these become a level of baseline performance for a university versus the performance of “peer institutions” or “aspirational” peers.  If your office can’t easily produce the metrics (and some of these are “easy” to produce, such as number of invention disclosures) what then? This can lead to an implied commitment to invest in the metrics—it’s important to remember that these decisions and actions are done at some cost.  This might include an annual patent budget, aimed at filing a respectable number of patent applications each year. After all, so the argument goes, you can’t expect home runs if you don’t get a nice number of “at bats” or base hits.  If you can produce enough cash, then you can produce patent applications, even issued patents. Funding a technology transfer office with a director, along with some support staff and maybe a couple of technology licensing managers, can represent a sizeable commitment of “overhead” funding.

This is when the tail might begin to wag the dog, and you learn, as Gerry points out, this doesn’t mean a happy dog.  A lot of investment and effort is being put into producing a pot of gold at the end of the research rainbow, which means dealing with troublesome leprechauns and associated tricky business.  Meanwhile everyone is still expecting those “smiles and fluffiness and public purpose, stardust and unicorns and glitter“ as it is nicely summed up in the original blog posting.  While I’ve pointed out the limitations of analogies in a earlier posting (here) this does get a couple of points across! You’ve got to remember, not every fairy tale has a happy ending, and there is always at least one character that is on the losing side.  This means someone gets stuck with the role of evil stepmother or nasty fire-breathing dragon.

It’s easy to keep with the script, stick with the stock characters and plots, rather than trying to put together a unique story. But this gets us back to that “law” of unintended consequences.  For all practical purposes, it’s impossible that positive consequences will be presented as “unintentional” and so there are no orphans in that part of the fairy tale. As for the rest, you might get some grudging acknowledgement of partial responsibility for negative twists in the story, but mostly you get rationalizations from the parties involved.  I like to think that we can work out some new plots for technology transfer tales, and maybe even endings with a few happy dogs.  You may still have a lot of those unintended consequences of course, but hopefully the “intended” consequences will make those worthwhile.

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.

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.