By Keith McDowell
Admit it! You always wanted to be a rock star belting out tunes while adoring fans groveled in the mosh pit. Or maybe it was a movie star surrounded by great actors and with an Oscar to boot. Of course, the svelte look of a fashion model always danced before your eyes as you stared at your reflection in a mirror. And then there were those of you who aspired to be top dog in the commercialization of university research … we pause to reflect on this dissonant chord and to paraphrase a hit tune by Nancy Sinatra: were those boots really made for walking?
No one grows up wanting to lead a university office of technology commercialization – well, maybe there are a few hardy souls out there with vision. Indeed, such a career path didn’t even exist in my youth! But exist it does and it’s one of the top new professions in America demanding the highest of skills. Unfortunately for universities, it’s a profession that has grown up so quickly that we face a dearth of top-quality people to fill the rapid growth in positions. How did we get to this situation and what does it mean to be a leader of technology commercialization at a university?
The story begins with the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. The act permitted universities to elect to pursue ownership of an invention developed from federal research grants in preference to the government and to actively commercialize the invention. Prior to Bayh-Dole, few universities engaged in the transfer of technology to industry and the process was limited principally to a licensing function. The offices responsible for that function became known as technology transfer offices (TTO) and the staff as technology managers. There were exceptions such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, created in 1926, that presaged the future.
Following Bayh-Dole, most universities were rather slow to respond and their focus was almost exclusively on technology transfer, not commercialization. Technology managers, typically lawyers, were hired or untrained staff were coerced into that role. Organizations such as the Licensing Executive Society (LES and founded in 1965) and the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM and founded in 1974) grew in prominence and a new and important professional career path opened up in universities with a specific focus on technology transfer as opposed to commercialization.
TTOs in many universities at the end of the Twentieth Century were back offices reporting up the channel to vice presidents for research and often consisting of a very small staff. Their functions included the following activities:
- Invention disclosure
- Protection as intellectual property (IP)
- Formation of business plan
- Asset/portfolio management
The director of a typical TTO dealt mainly with faculty, the USPTO, and with licensees of their IP. It was an important job with definable activities that encompassed a reasonable skill set.
Several emergent forces upset the TTO applecart. First was the growing need for university incubators to house start-up companies created by faculty and subsequently by more complex alliances of people. University incubators demanded leaders and directors with skill sets appropriate to their management and with the vision to function in an ever changing landscape. Even the putatively simple act of forming a university incubator is not straightforward.
Second was the push for regional economic development or “eco-devo” as some called it. The eco-devo push was often ill-defined and was thrust upon vice presidents for research to manage and to make sense of. No longer was an appearance at dog and pony shows designed to attract leading industry to a community sufficient. Demands grew for universities to engage with regional communities to help them grow their own economies. If Silicon Valley could do it, so could main-street America. The theme was endlessly repeated without a clue as to what should be done. And who at a university was going to do whatever it was that needed to be done?
Next was the realization that we live in a globally competitive world with other nations seemingly racing faster than America to create ecosystems supportive of startup company formation at the frontiers of research and development and supportive of the commercialization of new IP. Accelerating the commercialization of university research became a new goal for universities. Pressure was put on TTOs to “perform” and metrics were perused. Critics and many pundits interpreted the data as demonstrating underperformance and the need for a new paradigm. The notion of “proof of concept” funding emerged as a tool to achieve acceleration as well as a tool to realize the commercialization potential of otherwise dead or undeveloped IP. But who should manage and distribute such funds? Was this a new function for TTOs?
But processing of ideas, discoveries, inventions, and the eventual IP faster and better into the commercial marketplace isn’t the final answer or the end of the story. America also recognized that we must innovate faster and better than everyone else. I’ve long advocated for the creation of innovation centers at universities fully engaged with a regional community of innovation. And that system of innovation at universities must be tightly coupled to all the processing and commercialization functions alluded to above. But who’s in charge? Who manages such a diverse portfolio of functions? Ultimately, it resides with the vice president for research, but it also requires an ancillary high-level professional skilled in the multi-faceted aspects of innovation and the commercialization of university research.
Initially, TTOs responded to the transformational paradigm shift by the oldest of tricks. They added a commercialization function to their office and changed their name to office of technology commercialization (OTC). Recognizing the need for professional certification, a Certified Licensing Professional (CFP) program began in 2008 under the initiative of LES. Such endeavors are worthy and must be done, but are they enough? Do they truly recognize the transformational change that is underway? Do they recognize the need to have an integrated response to technology transfer, technology commercialization, regional economic development, innovation, or any other buzz word you want to add to the list? Are we doing what needs to be done?
The emergence of the commercialization of university research under the umbrella of an innovation ecosystem is a fascinating story and one that I’ve only briefly reviewed. It is a phenomenon that is in a state of flux as we leap up the transformation S-shaped curve and head for the next plateau. Exactly what will emerge systemically is up for debate, but one thing is clear. Someone must be in charge! And that someone will need to be a professional with a variety of non-overlapping skill sets and strong interpersonal skills to navigate around faculty, university administrators, lawyers of all stripes, entrepreneurs, investors, politicians, and even the world of critics and pundits. I don’t claim to have the answers as to how such a profession should be structured or even as to how universities should approach dealing with the diverse functionalities that would require such leaders. But I do believe that universities and those who speak for innovation in America need to address this issue immediately. Someone who knows what they are doing needs to be in charge of the overall innovation system at a university. Defaulting to an untrained vice president for research or to a siloed structure is not the answer.