As I discussed in early December, I’ve been curious about the experiences of those starting (or restarting) their TTO. So we created a short survey and invited the tech transfer community to use it to share their experiences. Two dozen folks responded — not bad considering it is a niche question. Today, I’m sharing these responses. And since helping TTOs be successful is part of what Fuentek does, I’m also going to share some of my insights and experiences.
Two-thirds of those responding were in the U.S., with another 20% from Europe and one response each from Mexico or South/Central America, Asia, and the Middle East/North Africa. The respondents were equally split among those launching a new TTO, those broadening the responsibilities of an existing office or department to include tech transfer functions, and those relaunching a TTO.
I found this even distribution interesting. I had not fully realized the magnitude of the recent “relaunch” trend, nor did I know that tech transfer was so often integrated with other responsibilities and with shared staffing. Then again, when I helped to launch the new Office of Technology Commercialization at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) in 2008, we were taking over a legacy portfolio and operations that had formerly been an adjunct responsibility of the Office of Sponsored Projects. So perhaps my personal experience was, in fact, fairly typical.
Resources They Used
When our survey asked, “What resources did/will your institution draw upon in establishing the tech transfer functions?” almost all respondents indicated that they relied heavily on their own or their staff’s experience. As the chart below shows, the next most-cited resources were Internet searches, other institutions (including their own affiliated organizations), in-person training courses, publications, and consultants. (Respondents could select more than one response.)
Respondents were seeking a wide range of information. Policies and guidelines, standard operating procedures, form and agreement templates, and marketing advice all were mentioned frequently by respondents, with some having also looked for resources having to do with intellectual property (IP) and/or customer relationship databases as well as with evaluation of invention disclosures.
When setting up the office at UT Dallas, we relied heavily on the previous experience of the senior executive with a significant amount of tech transfer experience to inform the high-level vision of the office. We also leaned heavily on the UT System and our sister institutions, the AUTM® Technology Transfer Practice Manual, and many of the other sources of information mentioned in the survey for insights into the nuts and bolts of implementation.
Advice: When you’re borrowing materials from other sources, remember to look for good alignment of missions and high-level goals to ensure that they can be easily adapted to your institution. For instance, if your institution and administration are focused on fostering and growing the local entrepreneurial ecosystem (as many are these days), your conflict-of-interest policies may be somewhat more lenient than those of an institution that is more focused on income generated in the shorter term from licensing.
Only a little over half of respondents said they use specialized software or databases such as Sophia, Inteum, etc. to track their IP portfolio. Among the remaining respondents, half use spreadsheets while the other half use word processing software or nothing. My guess is that the offices reporting that they do not use software tailored to IP management have fewer than 20 invention disclosures each year on average (perhaps significantly fewer). I found our software indispensable in managing our portfolio and our office, particularly as our invention disclosures initially doubled and then continued to rise. (Editor’s note: For more on this topic, see “Using the IP Management Database to Answer Metrics FAQs.”)
Biggest Challenge: Culture Change
Half of respondents said that setting up the tech transfer function overall was fairly straightforward. At the same time, in the comments section of the survey, a high percentage of respondents generally cited “changing the culture” as one of the hardest parts of starting a TTO. Many also cited various aspects of interacting with the researcher community (and, to a lesser extent, the administration). Recurring themes included getting researcher buy-in, motivating researchers to participate, overcoming negative feelings from the past, etc.
I can certainly empathize with those sentiments, and I’m sure one reason so many TTOs do a “restart” is the clean break it offers when working with stakeholders. We were fortunate at UT Dallas to have very strong support from the highest levels of our administration. But there were many researchers who’d previously had what they viewed as a negative experience with tech transfer. We spent many long hours remediating those relationships so that we could capitalize on the many opportunities offered by the great technology being developed at the institution. (I might write more about this part of my experience at UT Dallas someday. In the meantime, TTOs facing culture change might appreciate this faculty turn-around story from Laura Schoppe.)
Second-Biggest Challenge: Legacy Portfolios
Another frequently mentioned challenge in (re)establishing the TTO was cleaning up, understanding, and organizing a legacy portfolio and creating an integrated system. At UT Dallas, we also invested a tremendous amount of energy at the beginning to sift through the legacy portfolio of technologies, patents, and agreements and appropriately prioritizing projects to tackle and update our records. Of course, we had to simultaneously develop our processes from the ground up and stay on top of new invention disclosures. (Whew! No wonder I was so tired!)
Advice: My best advice for dealing with the legacy portfolio is to take a multi-stage approach to ensure that whatever resources are available to devote to this major undertaking are invested wisely. In other words, take one pass through at a high level to get an overall feel for what is in the portfolio, to pick up on patterns, and to scope out and prioritize the remaining tasks. Then you can begin assigning resources to the detailed implementation in a way that gets you the biggest bang for the buck up front. That will maximize your chances of getting some early success stories to share with stakeholders, which is always important in keeping them supportive of what you’re doing.
Let me close by thanking those who took the time to participate in our survey. If you didn’t get a chance to weigh in and have a story to share (or if you did and want to say more), join the conversation by leaving a comment below. You’re also welcome to send me a private message.