Monday kicked off the Eastern Region meeting for the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) in Baltimore. It was a day of good discussions and debate about how to encourage economic development through university technology transfer — the theme for the meeting.
A series of sessions ran in logical succession on the topic of start-ups, the poster child for economic development. The day began with the challenges of creating a start-up from a university, moderated by Imran Nasrullah from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. Then, we focused on key elements in leveraging economic development agencies to help start-ups be successful. Finally, I had the pleasure of moderating a session focused on an alternate approach to start-ups: collaborative partnerships.
A surprising dichotomy arose throughout these discussions concerning the issue of metrics. Ugly and messy though they may be, metrics are very much a reality for tech transfer offices (TTOs). In fact, you might appreciate reading our white paper: “How’d We Do?: Establishing Useful Technology Transfer Metrics.”
When we asked those in the room how many had start-ups as a primary metric for their university TTO, nearly all raised their hands. When asked how many TTOs were expected to bring in revenue—hopefully enough to be a self-sufficient office—they again raised their hands.
There’s a bit of a disconnect there. We know that start-ups might result in payback if they are successful after a lot of support and time. That’s in direct conflict with the “show me the money” expectation.
Further complicating things is the trend in translational research. This basically refers to a university continuing the development of innovations through proof of concept (if not further) so they are more likely to be licensed and make it to market. One option in this path is collaborative R & D partnerships, preferably achieved via Symbiotic Innovation. As we discussed in the panel, the glamour of start-ups may not be the answer to effective transfer for every technology. Translational research can result in collaboratively developed, targeted solutions that lead to real products and possible job development.
Let me be crystal clear: It is logical (not to mention necessary) to make the investments that bring technologies to the point where they are licensable. But managing and funding continued development of innovations through the translational stage does not result in revenue today.
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TTO managers recognize this inherent dichotomy of these conflicting metrics. The challenge is to help others recognize that near-term traditional metrics (e.g., revenue, number of patents, number of licenses) need to be re-evaluated if start-ups for economic development are the goal. And by “others” I mean the administration at their institutions (who impose the metrics targets on the TTO) as well as state and federal legislators.
The point is: There is no singular path for tech transfer success. Each technology will need a specific strategy defined for it to be successful. Maybe it’s a straight license to an existing company. Maybe it’s a hybrid approach of a license to a small or medium enterprise (SME) for part of the patent and the rest going to a start-up for further incubation. Or maybe it’s the new trend of university incubation through translational research.
Regardless of the path, the metrics to measure the TTO’s success need to allow for these varying strategies. And that can happen only when there is general acceptance that the TTO can influence success for the university community in greater ways than just licensing revenue.
Do you have thoughts on this topic? What is your experience? Leave a comment below, or contact us to continue the conversation.
–By Laura Schoppe