Why University TTOs Are Getting a Bad Rap—and Why That’s Just Not Right
An article on Huffingtonpost.com’s Tech section about university technology transfer offices (TTOs) recently caught my attention, and I’d like to take a moment to respond to it. In “Getting Value From R&D Dollars,” Gary Liberson takes the Kauffman Foundation as well as Duke University’s Vivek Wadhwa to task for their stance that “universities hold intellectual property hostage by placing unreasonable conditions on those seeking to bring ideas to the marketplace.” Dr. Liberson notes that Wadhwa and the Kauffman Foundation identify university TTOs as the culprit. But, Dr. Liberson argues, “Tech-transfer offices are just whipping boys for a tougher systemic problem.” And what is that problem? Dr. Liberson says, “Universities want to make money, but are often clueless about the effort it takes to bring an idea to the marketplace.”
I agree that there is a systemic problem and that piling the blame on TTOs is not fair. But it’s not that university tech transfer offices are clueless; it’s that the TTOs are under-resourced. In fact, this very issue was one of the topics of conversation at the President’s Council on Jobs & Competitiveness roundtable that I attended last month.
Because of a lack of adequate funding, TTOs are often bottlenecked—not holding innovation hostage with unreasonable terms as Wadhwa and the Kauffman Foundation suggest. In fact, statistics on university licensing deals indicate that terms are typically quite low, especially compared with corporate-to-corporate license agreements.
When university TTOs are under-funded, they do not even have the resources they need to implement an effective and efficient technology triage process. As a result, the technology managers often end up carrying loads of about 200 technologies—way too many to proactively and efficiently manage and find the valuable gems.
The funding problem is further compounded by the fact that many university TTOs are being told to foster startups and encourage entrepreneurship, yet they are also being told to “show me the money” now, even though we know that most startups don’t result in revenue for at least a few years—if they survive. So not only are university TTOs not getting the resources they need, they also are dealing with conflicting goals in terms of where to focus their deal-making efforts.
I also appreciated Dr. Liberson’s pointing out the characteristics that make for successful university technology commercialization. In featuring the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel as a great example, he highlights the importance of:
- Streamlined management: Commercialization occurs within a single office rather than distributed among the faculty.
- Fewer silos: Efforts are made to facilitate communication among tech transfer personnel, between TTO staff and professors/researchers, and between researchers across disciplines.
- Professional IP management: Commercialization is managed by an organization that makes decisions for the good of the larger institution.
- Better understanding of faculty role: Having a faculty champion for commercialization is important, but so is managing conflicts of interest.
What are your thoughts on the challenges facing university TTOs? What can be learned from other research centers? Leave a comment below or contact us to continue the conversation.
–By Laura A. Schoppe