Act Now to Stop Free Agency in Tech Transfer

The urgency is growing surrounding a very important technology transfer issue: the free agency concept. This is the idea put forth by The Kauffman Foundation that university faculty should be able to shop their discoveries to any third party for licensing.

A Quick Recap

The free agency concept first gained attention in January 2010, when Harvard Business Review called it a breakthrough idea for 2010. I blogged at the time that it is, in fact, a naive idea.

Amazingly, the concept has made its way into pending legislation introduced by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Jerry Moran (R-KS). Although S. 1965, which is known as the Startup Act, provides much-needed support to accelerate the formation of startup businesses, Section 7 of the bill includes some free agency provisions. Basically, it would allow university researchers to choose their own agents to help transfer their technology rather than working with their home university’s TTO. These provisions raise some significant questions, which have yet to be answered. (For more information about S. 1965, download the bill summary or its full text.)

The Latest Missives

Besides a 2009 piece that we mentioned back in February, some other key items have been published in the past few weeks that every tech transfer professional (and university researcher, for that matter) should read:

It Ain’t Necessarily So: Just Saying That Bayh-Dole Gives Patent Ownership to University Inventors Doesn’t Make It True, which was written by former staffer to Sen. Birch Bayh Joseph Allen and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) patent counsel emeritus Howard Bremer, appeared in the April 6th Life Sciences Law & Industry Report (published by Bloomberg BNA).

In School Power: The Case for Keeping Innovation in the Hands of Universities, which appeared the following week on The Atlantic Web site, Mr. Allen is joined by former Sen. Bayh himself in decrying the free agency concept.

We also had Todd Sherer of Emory University and current president of the Association of University Technology Managers® (AUTM®) urging members to Just Say “No” to Free Agency in his April 13th blog post.

Most importantly, Allowing Inventors Free Agency Privilege to Develop Technologies is AUTM’s formal position statement that “strongly opposes” the free agency concept. AUTM also worked with other associations to draft alternative language to Section 7.

You Can Act

I urge you to check out AUTM’s No Free Agency resource center and take some or all of the steps outlined there:

  • Meet with your federal relations officers and vice presidents for research to educate your colleagues about the free agency concept and its flaws
  • Help AUTM reach out to faculty who are pleased with the current technology transfer process so that the association can compile testimonials
  • Tell others that free agency is a bad idea.

If everyone who opposes free agency raises their voices against it, we may finally be able to educate the powers that be on the realities of implementing this concept and put this non-productive idea to rest.

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3 Responses to Act Now to Stop Free Agency in Tech Transfer

  1. Gennaro says:

    Perhaps, one way to evaluate the potential efficacy (or lack thereof) of the free agency is to look at two indicators:
    (1) number of technologies that were returned to inventors and were successfully (and at fair price) licensed to corporations and implemented in the form of products and services
    (2) rate of successful companies started by academic inventors, based on “returned technologies” and compared with rate of successful companies formed by experienced management.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comment, Gennaro. You might find this other blog post about the Startup Act — and the comments at the bottom — of interest.

    • Laura Schoppe says:

      I agree, Gennaro – these would be very relevant metrics and good indicators of efficacy. We would welcome universities sharing their data or stories, and we’d compile and share anything we receive via our Contact Us page. AUTM may be gathering this information from members already, in which case we’ll share a link to that info if it goes public.

      FWIW, in my nearly 20 years in the tech transfer industry, I have not seen an inventor take on a “released” technology nor have I heard anecdotal
      stories of such success.