Found in Translation: Insights on Gap Funding for Tech Transfer
Want to pack a room? Talk about gap funding at the Eastern Region Meeting (ERM) of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM®).
Recently I had the pleasure of moderating the “Found in Translation: Making the Most of Gap Funding” session at AUTM-ERM with four panelists:
- Richard Chylla of Michigan State University
- Corine Farewell of the University of Vermont (UVM)
- Marc Sedam of the University of New Hampshire
- Todd Sherer of Emory University
In sharing their experience and insights, these panelists represented a diversity of perspectives — small and large tech transfer offices (TTOs), funding-challenged and economically robust states, new programs and those with long track records in funding high-tech and low-tech projects. And their programs varied in terms of the size of the grants, who is eligible to receive funding, the types of projects that the grants support, and the source(s) of the funds (see image).
This variety in the panelists was appreciated by the audience, which was just as varied as the panelists. For example, when I asked attendees how many felt they had adequate funding available for translational R&D, a small (but surprisingly significant) number put up their hands.
With all of the useful information presented during the session, as well as the lively back-and-forth among the panelists and with the attendees, I’d like to share four key take-aways.
1. Gap Funding Enhances Relationships with Researchers and Industry
Aside from direct benefit of helping advance a technology down the commercialization pipeline, gap funding helps build relationships with inventors and industry. For example, the availability of gap funding increased the frequency of researchers contacting the TTO. After the session, I heard from one university TTO that invention disclosures increased dramatically when gap funding was offered where such filings are part of the requirements. So researchers definitely see it as a carrot to engage.
From the industry side, panelists agreed that the availability of gap funds attracts the attention of commercial partners. For example, sometimes it has been at the prompting of an industry partner that a researcher contacts the TTO about the gap fund. Therefore, publicize the program beyond the walls of your institution.
Rich’s tip: If you’re looking to get more engagement from a particular department, do some extra marketing of the gap fund there. It likely will help overcome the department’s historically low TTO involvement.
2. Be Strategic in Awarding Funds
All of the panelists clearly are being very strategic with their funds. They gave thoughtful consideration to their evaluation/award criteria, specify how the money can be spent, and set clear expectations/milestones to be achieved. Panelists also discussed the idea of using the results produced from early stage funding to determine funding for the next stage. For example, the proof-of-concept phase involved a relatively small slug of money and if that project is successful — in terms of the technology’s progress and the researcher’s stewardship/responsiveness — the project was eligible for the next round of translational funding.
Corine’s tip: Rather than “spreading the wealth” across many projects, which can deplete your resources, focus on giving fewer projects enough money to ensure they can take an important step forward in their R&D.
3. Seek Variety in Your Funding Sources
Several of the programs discussed at the session receive money from state government, which often requires presentations to the legislature to make funding requests and report on impact. Some receive funding from a variety of sources. For example, Emory has three gap funding programs, and they receive funding from various sources, including the university itself, the state, Georgia Tech, and the Coulter Foundation.
Marc’s tip: Try to find funding sources other than state funding to cut the red tape and avoid politics.
4. Track the Successes (and Failures)
Most funders want to be kept informed of the impact of their allocation, often with specific outcomes of interest. For example, state government’s expectations often are tied to economic development and job formation. So, tailor your data gathering so that your metrics will address your stakeholders’ concerns. Yet do not limit your data gathering to the funders’ interests. Track what is valuable for your TTO to know, and be on the lookout for unexpected outcomes. For example, Michigan State’s faculty began reporting higher success in securing other grant awards, perhaps because their experience with the gap fund helped them more persuasively articulate the value of their proposed project.
Todd’s tip: Tracking the outcomes of the projects over time gives you the information you need to put together powerful graphics like this one.
And remember… A Little Can Go a Long Way
Don’t despair if your TTO does not have copious amount of funding for translational research. Compared to Georgia and Michigan, New Hampshire and Vermont are small states where funding is especially hard to come by. But their success proves that a small amount of money can go a long way to getting technologies through the gap that forms the Valley of Death.
For more on this topic, check out the “Advice for University Translational Research to Close the Valley of Death” post from Fuentek president Laura Schoppe. And feel free to post a comment below or send me a private message.