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How to develop a good tech transfer office

As universities come under increasing pressure to demonstrate the wider impact of their research, Science|Business brings together some of Europe’s most experienced technology transfer offices to discuss the dos and don’ts

Paul Van Dun, speaking at the Innovating for Growth conference in Barcelona
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Universities are under pressure to maximise the impact of their research, prompting an increasing focus on technology transfer.

Last month at its 2015 Innovating for Growth conference in Barcelona, Science|Buisness convened a panel of experts in the field to talk about the state of play and provide advice to institutions which are just starting out on the path to commercialising their research.

The critical ingredient that a technology transfer office (TTO) needs to be successful is autonomy from the university, believes Paul Van Dun, general manager of KU Leuven. The reason is to ensure continuity as one rector succeeds another.

“As a TTO you do not want to depend on changing guidelines every four or five years. You need to offer continuity to companies,” Van Dun said. “If you work with someone like GE and they come back three years later, they don’t want to see everything changed. They want stability.”

One of the key tasks of a TTO is to make a judgement on whether research should be patented or otherwise protected. From there it is a case of whether to license the discovery or try to spin it into a start-up.

Spawning a few big hits can go a long way. But there is no annual target for spinouts at Manchester University, which manages its technology transfer through a subsidiary, UMI3.

“I wouldn’t like the job to be reduced to counting spinouts. That’s artificial and can create perverse incentives,” said Luke Georghiou, Manchester’s vice president for research and innovation.

The university does quite well all the same, with a recent ranking putting it fourth in Europe over a 10 year period. It is also expecting a rush of business on the back of its Nobel Prize-winning graphene research, which is seen as having significant commercial potential. 

Rather than the number of companies, Georghiou prefers to talk about how much outside money the university raised in a year, or how much a spinout has fed into the economy. UK universities are now obliged to demonstrate how they fare on such metrics as part of the Research Excellence Framework, a recently introduced system for assessing the quality of research in the country’s higher education institutions.

“We decided recently we should start measuring the social return [of spin-outs],” Georghiou said. 

Similarly, Karolinska Institutet  does not focus on spinout numbers, said Malene Jensen, project leader. “It’s better to talk about adding value to the economy,” she said. “One of our main tasks is to show researchers what kind of value they can add to each and every research project.”

Dealing with shy researchers

Universities face the dilemma of having researchers with good ideas who do not make themselves known to their TTO.

Commercial potential is not always at the top of researchers’ preoccupations. “It’s been said, don’t try to turn researchers into entrepreneurs, it’ll be a failure,” said van Dun.  “Sometimes the best researchers will not pick up the phone. You just need a constant interaction with everyone, without being perceived as a policing or auditing entity: you have to be a partner.”

No TTO has the reach to find and develop every good idea, Georghiou said. Given this it is best to keep expectations in check. “We probably reach around 10 per cent of the university,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to reach more than this.” There are many researchers who will not think to exploit their inventions, but also serial entrepreneurs who might start three or four companies.

Jensen said the Karolinska is looking at novel ways of enticing researchers out of their labs. “Traditionally, researchers climb up the ladder by publishing papers,” she said. “But we are thinking now, can we give them a target like creating a patent? It’s one idea we’re looking at.”

Slow revolution

The decision to open a TTO on campus is the beginning of a slow revolution. 

“Our office was started back in 1972,” said Van Dun. “Then nothing much happened for 10 years. It took that long to get the ball rolling.”

Leuven has gone on to taste strong success; between 2005 and 2014, industry contracts, licensing and patents generated nearly €1.4 billion in revenue for the university.

Karolinska established its TTO in the mid-90s. “It has been building slowly, step-wise,” said Jensen. “We’re a little bit behind and now trying to catch up.”

In the last few years the university has dipped its toe into new partnerships. For instance, in May the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson opened a small office on campus to prospect for novel biology in Karolinska Institutet’s labs. “That’s all a bit new for us,” said Jensen. “We are very traditional, very academically-heavy.”

Van Dun believes there is still a lot of lip service around how much some universities are doing to commercialise their research. “You see universities which have glossy brochures, with pictures of people collaborating with industry. But if you look behind the curtain, there’s still a lot of universities that put all their emphasis on research and education,” said Van Dun.

Scraping together seed money

Even – or perhaps especially – in austerity-ravaged times, it is important not to let the work of TTOs fall by the wayside, the panellists said. But it is a struggle.

“Financing spinouts is always difficult,” said Jensen. “We have a huge tradition of public funding [so] we’re always struggling to get money from venture capital.”

To help with the customary search for seed money, Karolinska is thinking of starting an investment fund. 

KU Leuven has run one since 1997. “It was really crucial to set up.  There were not a lot of investors interested in small high-tech companies after the dot.com collapse,” said van Dun. 

It has become harder to access money since the financial crisis, Georghiou confirmed. “For many years, we were fortunate to have a dedicated fund for seed investments. Post financial crisis and it’s been difficult to replenish this.” The university has now teamed up with two new investment firms.

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Related subjects: Technology Transfer, TTO, ACES 2015