Accelerate technology transfer to boost cluster development

24 Jul 2013 | Viewpoint
The world’s leading technology clusters grew organically, over decades. The question for countries and regions setting out to develop their innovation ecosystems, is how to capitalize on university research and catch up quickly. It’s possible to accelerate the process, says Matt Van Itallie

High tech clusters like those around MIT in Boston and Stanford in Silicon Valley have long benefited from commercialising innovations coming out of nearby universities and national labs, spurring regional economic growth, boosting institutional wealth, and providing a magnet for excellent researchers and students.  

The benefits can be substantial: in the case of the University of Wisconsin, technology transfer has generated nearly US $1.25 billion since the inception of WARF, its commercialisation organisation.

While there are good role models, many of the successful technology transfer-driven innovation ecosystems have developed organically, over decades.  The challenge for others is how to catch up quickly.  

The good news is that accelerated progress is feasible.  Both the University of Alabama and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, for example, doubled key measures of commercialisation performance in a short period.  

After conducting several such acceleration projects and canvassing hundreds of leaders and participants in innovation ecosystems across the US, I would suggest three approaches to European counterparts with similar aims. The first concerns strategy, the second tactics, the third cultural shifts. 

First, pursue an asset-based strategy to unlock energy and fills the gaps - with an emphasis on bringing in start-up creators, or early stage commercialisation talent  

As with any complex system, the best strategies for strengthening innovation-driven ecosystems begin with an honest, fact-based assessment of assets, needs and resulting gaps.  Innovation ecosystems require talent, technology, capital, and strong connectivity between these resources.  Some for example, may have strong technological assets but insufficient capital - a common phenomenon we encountered at university systems that are located at a distance from the largest US cities.  

Targeted initiatives are needed to fill gaps or unlock the potential of current assets.  Several US universities, for example, have simplified licensing structures to boost commercialisation.  One university created “blue plate specials” (referring to a special deal at American restaurants) that favour deals with start-ups involving participation of the scientist inventor - a good way to encourage skill development alongside technology transfer.  

These initiatives needn’t be complex.  In some cases, it’s enough to ask for help.  We launched an experiment in one US city to test university student interest (both graduate and undergraduate), in startups.  Five internship postings on student websites led to 150 applications within one month.

While communities will vary in terms of resources, almost every ecosystem we have explored is short of one element: early-stage commercialisation talent.  This includes the ability to evaluate a technology’s commercialisation potential, bring together business partners, and build trust with investors and prospective customers – in other words, the art and science of launching start-ups.  

New approaches are being tried to make good this scarcity, such as hiring serial entrepreneurs and enlisting student entrepreneurial energy.  One start-up we know began with a subject matter expert entrepreneur who was recruited to evaluate 15 pieces of university intellectual property, with the best going into the company.  In this case, there was a team before there even was a specific business idea.

Second - use quantitative analytic tools to efficiently scan for commercialisation opportunities 

From strategy, let’s turn to tactics.  One method we think is extremely promising is to take advantage of the advances in quantitative analytics of intellectual property.

To give a very simple example, knowing that a patent is cited by many other patents (forward citations) indicates it has stronger commercialisation potential, all things being equal, than other patents in the space.  This approach is well-established in pharmaceuticals.  

The rise of big data and the fall of computer processing costs mean techniques that were once only available to pharmaceutical companies are now cost effective for universities, investors, and others.  

The advantages are many: faster analysis of commercialisation potential, prioritisation of licensing and patent costs activities, and identification of specific commercialisation partners.  

One large research institution we know used these tools to analyse all of its patents and disclosures in a matter of months.  It was able to identify commercialisation priorities and prioritise licensing partners, for a broad range of research ranging from scientific equipment to software, to sunroofs.   

Some research institutions are considering using analytics to proactively evaluate research findings for their commercialisation potential - identifying research and researchers, and inviting them to participate, even before they “raise their hand” to the technology transfer office.  Such an approach can be preferable to a top-down mandate - it respects the independence and integrity of individual scientists while also permitting exploration of a broader set of scientific findings.

Third - acknowledge and engage with researchers’ concerns about participating in commercialisation  

Finally, in addition to strategic and tactical choices, European policy makers and institutions should think about engaging with the cultural elements of commercialisation.  Many researchers are deeply concerned about participating in technology transfer.  Organisations which choose not to acknowledge and respond these viewpoints risk slow progress, or worse, a backlash.  

These concerns might take many forms.  Amongst US researchers we have spoken to, a small but significant group, genuinely believe that being involved in academic or government research is antithetical to commercialisation.  Many more were interested but had many questions, from the personal (What will this mean for my academic career?  What will other professors think?), to the technical (What is an angel investor?), to the practical (I teach and run a lab. Where will I find the time?).  

The onus is on institutions that want to foster more commercialisation to address these concerns and make it easier for researchers to “dip their toe in the water of innovation.” 

We have seen several methods that work. It is important to review incentive structures - for example, to ensure that professors who want to participate in start-ups are not penalised (and, ideally, rewarded) on their primary academic career paths.  

Incentives are not enough, though.  Institutions also need to build the right support networks for staff.  This includes recruiting start-up CEOs who are deeply respectful of the scientific process, and providing forums where researchers can safely ask what they fear may be obvious questions.  

The most important element, though, is building the right story.   Institutions must tackle head on - with respect, but also with conviction- that yes, science and business are compatible and mutually beneficial.  

One professor we know arrived at her department, which did applied research, to find, despite the formal presence of a technology transfer function, that many of her colleagues were hostile to it.  

When she had the opportunity to chair her department, she made commercialisation a priority.  Her view was that commercialisation is an extension of the scientific method, a way to expand the impact of their lab findings.  With repetition and honest conversations with her colleagues - that did not shy away from the philosophical questions at stake, she was able to change opinions.  As a result, this department is now a leader in her university for commercialisation.

Matt Van Itallie is the Managing Partner at Canterbury Road Partners, a consultancy that works with universities to accelerate technology transfer on behalf of regional economic development. ([email protected]).

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