Consolidating Multi-Campus Tech Transfer: The Foundation Option
Two weeks ago Tech Transfer Central’s eNews Blog featured a new effort by the Purdue Research Foundation to pool its resources with several related organizations — including other research centers and an entrepreneurial incubator — to increase innovation, research grant awards, and tech transfer throughout Indiana. According to the original news release, this collaboration will be managed by a board of advisers composed of local and state stakeholders as well as educational and economic partners.
This struck me as a great example of the value provided by foundations that reside outside of the state university structure and own/manage the institution’s intellectual property (IP). Several state universities have implemented foundations to manage their technology transfer programs, entrepreneurship support, and more. These foundations can take advantage of greater flexibility in deal structure, reduced bureaucracy, more autonomy, and a broadening of services.
For example, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) offers an Accelerator Program to speed commercialization of IP emerging from the UW–Madison. Looking beyond basic research or exploratory science, the program is designed to identify discoveries with potentially high commercial value, providing targeted funding and expert advice from “Catalysts” (i.e., seasoned business mentors). WARF Accelerator grants, which typically have ranged from $75,000 to $125,000, help inventions achieve technical milestones and advance to the marketplace.
Another example is the MSU Innovation Center (Michigan State University), which offers several grants as well as tech transfer services via MSU Technologies, entrepreneurial assistance through Spartan Innovations, and business development under MSU Business CONNECT.
Indeed, the number of examples goes on:
- NUtech Ventures (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
- University of Iowa Research Foundation
- Iowa State University Research Fund
- Kansas State University Research Foundation
- University of Tennessee Research Foundation
- Florida State University Research Foundation
- University of Alabama at Birmingham Research Foundation
- Washington Research Foundation
All of these organizations are tied to a single campus. But as I discussed in a past blog post and white paper, certain elements of a multi-campus university system’s technology transfer program could be consolidated into a single organization. Although not everything can be consolidated — because on-campus tech transfer offices are absolutely essential — some duplication of effort and other inefficiencies could be avoided via a separate, non-university, not-for-profit entity that was the assignee for the entire university system’s IP portfolio.
In other words, a centralized foundation that serves multiple campuses of a public university system.
A foundation that centralizes/consolidates some activities offers several advantages over fully distributing all responsibilities across multiple campuses:
- The infrastructure costs (e.g., building, staff, IT systems) are reduced.
- Commercialization decisions are more likely to be based on market factors rather than internal, campus-specific pressures.
- Consolidating IP portfolios across campuses makes it easier for businesses to find the technologies or research expertise they need.
- Consistent and standardized processes and policies make deal-making easier for businesses.
- A greater diversity in skill sets can be obtained from fewer staff overall.
- Smaller universities can obtain the same quality service as larger research institutions.
In fact, the foundation could expand to also serve the state’s community college system, which has low invention disclosure rates and almost no tech transfer infrastructure. A centralized foundation could provide that infrastructure for the few inventions that do emerge.
The foundation could also consolidate resources for entrepreneurs — keeping the best-in-class programs going while repurposing the funding that was supporting duplicative and/or less effective programs.
Of course, for such a foundation to be successful, it must be structured carefully. In particular, the IP emerging from individual campuses must be automatically assigned to the foundation. This is crucial because if the IP is still owned by each individual school, it will be too easy for the big campuses (or even a smaller campus that hits the royalty revenue jackpot) to pull out and keep all of their royalty revenue rather than leverage it via the foundation to support services for all the campuses.
One option in establishing such a foundation is to leverage an existing organization that is focused on entrepreneurial business innovation and economic advancement, either broadly or in a specific industry area. It might be faster and easier to use an existing organization as the owner/manager, although its current structure and charter likely would have to be significantly modified to accommodate a centralized foundation.
BTW, a few months ago I posed a question on LinkedIn about distributing and/or centralizing tech transfer functions across large, multi-campus/lab organizations. An interesting conversation developed in the GAIN group — check it out here.
Of course, establishing such a foundation requires significant strategic planning and consensus building via effective communication — two skills that are a core part of what we do. If your university system is contemplating such an endeavor, feel free to contact me to discuss how Fuentek can provide value-added support.