External Advisory Boards: A Short-Term Tool for Tech Transfer (or “Not Mr. Right, but Mr. Right Now”)
I was recently asked for my insights about technology transfer office (TTO) use of external advisory boards or committees. Such boards have been frequently cited in reports and the press as a useful tool — or even a required element — for improved tech transfer operations. The thinking is that external boards provide a means to obtain objective industry/market opinions about new technologies and/or to tap into technical expertise not available within the TTO.
I am all in favor of turning to external experts for insights on technologies, and we do it all the time in the market-based technology assessments we conduct for our clients. When you target the right people for each technology, industry experts can quickly provide direct and relevant market-fit information. The tech transfer professional then can use that information to develop the right strategy for the technology.
This approach not only provides the external perspective that reports and the press call for but also the interactions can evolve into warm leads for licensing or sponsored research. And the best thing is: You impose on the experts for no more than that one interview.
Processing a One-Time Backlog
A variation on this with a little more time commitment is to use an external advisory board to tackle a large quantity of technologies all at once. If you have a backlog of disclosures waiting to be evaluated, a 1-day event with many external volunteers considering multiple technologies within their field of expertise is a time- and resource-efficient implementation of the external board concept.
Such an event does require quite a bit of upfront work, particularly with a preliminary screening. Screening the backlogged inventions first not only eliminates the technologies not worth considering at all but also categorizes the rest to facilitate assignments to the volunteers.
So the planning is not insignificant, but the value obtained from the external advisory board in this context is significant. And convincing the external experts to volunteer their time for 1 day isn’t too difficult since they will see value in having the chance to find a “hidden gem” in your portfolio.
The Challenges with Ongoing Advisory Boards
My experience with the research groups that have used external boards on an ongoing basis has been that it is an unsustainable model. Here are a few reasons why.
Time constraints: The experts’ day jobs make it very difficult for them to dedicate time and energy to providing their insights on a regular basis.
Limited value to them: If they don’t find the hidden gem after the first one or two sessions, they no longer see the value in donating their time.
Limited expertise from them: Experts bring their own background to the table, which is likely to be relevant for only a few of the technologies. Also, business leaders understand their business model and market, but they rarely understand licensing and commercialization of embryonic innovations, so their suggestions are often unrealistic or miss the possibilities in secondary market applications.
Conflicts of interest: For the members of the board to add value to the technology analysis, they will need to know details and have relevance to the potential markets. This also means that their recommendations will be tainted with their own best interest. On a one-time basis when the expert is appropriately matched to the technology, this is not an issue (in fact, it’s the goal). But on an ongoing/broad basis, such a conflict of interest does not adequately serve the rest of portfolio.
BTW, the conflict-of-interest issue also applies if the “external” experts are within your larger organization but outside the TTO, providing technical rather than market/industry expertise. In many research organizations, competition between researchers often exists; therefore, such an advisory board should not have decision-making power on the patenting and commercialization of a technology.
So to sum up, there are some very good reasons to leverage external parties and some very good ways to achieve success with it. But in my experience, the ongoing use of an external board is difficult to sustain and may not always serve the best interests of the institution.