University technology transfer – policy or practicality?

For those of you that have never been to Pittsburgh, it has undergone a transformation in the last 20-30 years. Pittsburgh is an interesting city – a post-industrial economy is thriving and there is a growing volume of spin-outs and start-ups, both from local universities (mainly Pitt and CMU), and businesses based in the region.

Contrary to the ‘bring back steel and coal’ mantra of some, the city, many believe, is on the cusp of a second phase of post–steel economic redevelopment.

Much of these changes I have seen first-hand as I have travelled back and forth from the UK, and in more recent years, working for one the spin outs from the Westinghouse Design Center: Bally Design – but more of that another time. It is great to watch the changes and I feel proud to played a very small part in this in my work with local companies and more recently, with the University of Pittsburgh.

This article is primarily for those that are looking to improve their university technology transfer and innovation capabilities. Leading lights such as MIT, Imperial College, Stanford need read no further. There is much written about this topic, and some may be wondering ‘why read one more?’. In a world where ‘policy’ abounds, at the federal, state, regional and institutional level, practical steps for effective technology transfer and innovation are sometimes hard to formulate – and what I set out below constitutes some very practical steps.

1. Understand your context, as most likely you can’t do anything about it.

Pittsburgh has a very strong history in corporate investment and technology. It has a selection of Universities – Pitt and CMU being foremost. Geographically, it is at the start of the Midwest, has excellent healthcare, property values (i.e. not too high), and has an interesting urban infrastructure (brownfield development opportunities), to name but a few.

OK, what do you do when you haven’t got these kinds of advantages? Look at what you do have and recognize where your strengths are. For example, if you’re some distance from the main centers of investment and corporate partnering, then setting up a “they’ll come to us” approach is going to be a hard row to hoe.

2. Ab initio or benchmarking?

The above mentioned leading lights (MIT…) have set stellar targets for those aspiring to greatness; however, that is like trying to play sport like the best team, and not realising that you have to adapt to take into account your local context and capabilities. On this second point, being from the UK, I can say it is like trying to get your local club soccer team to play ‘Total Football’ like the great 1970s Dutch football team, or rugby (a growing sport in the US) like the All Blacks – if you haven’t got the right players, the system of play doesn’t work; after all, there’s only one Richie McCaw (for the uninitiated, he was in the All Blacks a few years ago and recognized by many as the best player of his position in history of the game).

American readers will have to think of their own particular sports examples. So, in technology transfer terms, implementing ‘MIT best practices’, or whichever institution you aspire to, isn’t going to work unless you identify which elements will serve you well and you can let go of the other stuff.

Unfortunately, the ‘stuff’ that is likely to serve you well is usually the basic mechanics, and the ‘stuff’ you maybe have to let go of – at least for the moment – is likely to include some of the more higher profile items – science park (very 1990s), or incubators (very current). They may emerge later.

So – when you benchmark I suggest you adopt the following thinking:

  • What works – understand the mechanics of what your benchmark target is doing. That’s what most do, but if you stop there, it’s likely that you will just end up replicating, rather than adapting and utilising. The latter being a far more effective approach, so…
  • How they ‘work’ what they do – this involves looking a little more deeply into the process steps, understanding some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ as to how they deliver what they do – for example, are their interactions with faculty members transactional or relational (see next step)
  • Why what they do works – look at their context, ask how that has influenced their setup, ask why a process turns out to be so effective. It may turn out that something works really well because the organisation is directly under one senior administrator’s office, or maybe it’s because they are under another.

3. Understand that wherever you are, it is never a greenfield site.

So you’ll being engaged in at least three types of activity.

  • Archaeology – finding out what goes on right now – that you know nothing about. Even in well-established establishments, there are likely to be a number of independent technology transfer activities going on. It’s best to uncover them, rather than trip, or worse stomp, over them.
  • Remediation – starting from a greenfield site means that you can establish precedents. Unfortunately, given point 1 above, quite a few precedents will have been set already – and you’ll likely have to remediate them. Some are likely to be easy enough to deal with, while others will be like dealing with a superfund site (see next point)
  • Power games – this is about span of control: within, between and beyond the faculty and administrative parts of the organization. Here’s a suggestion. You can’t win all of these turf battles at once, so don’t try. Make the changes that you can, start delivering real value – that generally helps when you then want to move into a different phase of operating. Ok, yes, I hear what some of you are saying “that’s playing politics…”. Yes, it is. But at least do it with some demonstrated value, rather than arguing points of principle.

4. Channel or gatekeeper?

This is an interesting one. The best approach – in my opinion – is that of being a channel. The gatekeeper approach ticks the ‘policy’ approach. It makes sure that everyone follows the rules and that the University is protected. From that point of view the rules are well known. However, it leads to transactional behaviour, which isn’t always the best way to get deals done, or build momentum around technology transfer activity.

Gatekeeper/transactional processes work well for the technology transfer team, especially if they aren’t that experienced. It gives a guideline to work to and tools to use: it can be less than satisfying to be either the faculty member or the corporate partner.

So does that mean the ‘channel’ approach is always better? You’ve guessed it…not necessarily. The channel approach is all about providing support to make things happen. It requires tools and processes, but it looks to make something happen, and if that means flexing the University’s standard IP policy, then so be it.

It’s likely that you’ll start with a ‘gatekeeper’ approach, but look to move beyond it as quickly as possible. Make sure that the faculty and outside partners want to come to you make things happen, rather than want to work around you because you slow things down and make it all too complicated.

5. Governance. Who’s in charge?

Sometimes it is very clear, and sometimes it feels like you can be in the middle of Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on first…” skit.

As I have alluded to above governance can come from multiple places. So which way is best? In the beginning, it is important that whomever is your sponsor within the University, they have to be committed to making the effort a success – hopefully for the entire University, but that isn’t compulsory – and that commitment is both at a practical, policy, and political level.

The next thing is – be prepared for the ownership of the technology transfer effort to change over time. This can be because of changes in personnel, shift of emphasis for the technology transfer group – for example, from licensing toward more incubation, or as a victim of your own success, someone else decides that they want to ‘own’ the process. The bottom line is don’t necessarily expect things to stay the same.

 6. Technology transfer, do you mean licensing?

Technology transfer takes many forms these days. Here are just a few:

  • Licensing intellectual property from within the university
  • Exploiting know-how from individual faculty members, which can evolve into…
  • …Centers of excellence that develop exploitable know-how that are part sponsored by some external company or group of companies
  • Creating an environment for faculty members to incubate new businesses, and these days…
  • …for students to incubate new businesses
  • Utilising real estate (aka ‘science park’, ‘innovation center’ or ‘incubator’ for start-up businesses, divisions of larger companies that want to be part of the start-up scene, or leverage on-campus expertize more directly
  • Bringing external expertize into the university by partnering with external organizations…
  •  …or partnering with other universities to pool know how and resources to meet needs of commercial businesses
  • Finding financial partners (VCs, angel investors, alumni endowments…) to work with on technology transfer
  • Packaging your forward IP pipeline to gain a massive inward investment into the University (that’s what Sir Richard Sykes did at Imperial College)

So do you have to do all of these? Not at all. The point here is that there are lots of ways to approach effective technology transfer at a University. Make sure that each one you undertake, you deliver value, once you have that nailed, you can move on to the next one.

The worst thing to do is try to do too many things. You’ll usually end up doing them all badly. If other people are taking on some of this outside of the ‘standard’ technology transfer organisation, I suggest that you let them. Maintain a dialogue, because at some stage there will be a desire to bring everything together ‘under one roof’ – such is the nature of organisations – and this works better if you all understand each other well.

So those are 6 steps. So what next? Here’s what I suggest.

  1. Go through the points above, and work out which have the greatest impact for your particular circumstance
  2. Understand the key processes that you want to initially focus on and build useful and usable workflows
  3. Emphasize solutions, rather than barriers wherever possible
  4. Build a set of approaches that can be adapted for evolving circumstances, rather than create new ones for each new situation
  6. Deliver on some near-term improvements
  7. (over) Communicate and share – individually, across the institution, digitally

There’s more that can be said, and it’s possible to spend many hours considering the details. This short piece is primarily to get you thinking and asking questions.

Get in contact for more information.

 I’ve worked in and around technology transfer in Universities on and off now for nearly thirty years in the UK and in the USA. I started out at Imperial college, worked in the Cambridge (UK) Technology cluster for a number of years and now am based in and around the Pittsburgh technology cluster. In addition, I have spent the last 20 years working with academic experts from around the globe, building subject matter expert networks for corporate clients – this has given me a very good insight into dealing with academic institutions from the outside.