By Keith McDowell
Darwin had it right! The quick survive. Others die. The strategy is simple. Outrun your competitors! And that’s exactly what a lot of people and businesses attempt to do, including universities in their scramble to commercialize university research. Some universities have even taken to branding themselves with “one-size-fits-all” licensing deals that can be signed on the quick time. The Carolina Express License is one example among many. But does it work? Is fast the only answer?
“Survival of the fittest” is a tricky business as Darwin well knew. “Quick” never really meant “fast” in the sense of a gazelle outrunning the lion. It meant the ability to adapt to change better and faster than competitors. And change is exactly what universities face in the 21st century. Driven by the ubiquitous demands for innovation and entrepreneurship from all quarters as the American answer to global competition, universities must adapt. They have no other choice given their role as the core element of regional innovation ecosystems.
And central to that role is the transfer of knowledge, or, more specifically, the technology transfer function, typically carried out by a technology transfer office (TTO). But the Darwinian imperative has already revealed itself as the TTO concept which was accelerated by the Bayh-Dole Act has morphed in the past decade into the office of technology commercialization (OTC) concept with the commercialization function trumping transfer. While organization charts and the assignment of priority and alignment to various functionalities in an organization is an essential activity in change management, it begs the question as well of strategy. Is there a best strategy or cluster of strategies for a TTO or OTC, assuming one adopts the conventional organizational structure?
In my former role as the Vice Chancellor for Research and Technology Transfer at The University of Texas System, I asked a number of TTO/OTC leaders to provide me with their favorite or possible strategies. I’ve condensed the list into 27 separate strategies. Not all possible strategies are given and some overlap. The nomenclature is intended to be self evident, but a more complete description is given in Go Forth and Innovate! Here is my unranked list:
- Build and use relational networks.
- Build trust through integrated interactions with university offices.
- Make quality deals – don’t kill the deal.
- Maximize return on investment.
- Eat what you kill.
- Maximize number of startups.
- Create wealth.
- Use procurement model – technology is available to everyone.
- Give away intellectual property – hope for downstream donations.
- Give away with strings attached – Rochester Institute of Technology model.
- Maximize social impact.
- Free-agency model – Kauffman Institute.
- Maximize number of deals.
- Minimize time needed to make deals.
- Hit homeruns.
- Use SBIR/STTR.
- Don’t forget copyrights.
- Maximize the greater good – humanitarian rights model.
- Customers are always right.
- University administration is always right.
- Faculty is always right.
- Venture capital is always right.
- Angel investors are always right.
- Entrepreneurs are always right.
- Use a “one-size-fits-all” deal structure.
- Use a real estate contract model – fill in the blanks.
- Create master agreements with major players.
Did you find your favorite strategy or strategies in the list? Maybe not. I’m sure there are more strategies to be employed and different ways to aggregate or define the strategies. My goal in producing this list is to encourage debate and to bring all players in the commercialization of university research to the table for the purpose of realizing that a strategic vision is essential, that there are many elements, and that there is likely no one right answer. I personally support using a suite of strategies within the framework of situational management.
Ultimately, universities through their TTO/OTC must have a business plan including a vision of what they are trying to accomplish and a strategy to get them there. Simply having a TTO/OTC because everyone else has one is not a reason to exist. And far too many operate by the seat of their pants, rushing from one interaction to another and one deal after another, hoping to stay ahead of the hangman, or keep up with the treadmill. We’ve all played that game. But technology commercialization is a serious business and it must be treated as such.
I conclude with an often overlooked, but nonetheless, salient feature of technology commercialization as a business in universities. It’s a business that can’t fail in the classic sense and doesn’t have to go out of business. Why do I say such heresy? Well, for those who haven’t figured it out, a TTO/OTC is a small part of a much bigger operation whose raison d’etre never ceases to exist. Universities are in the education business and there will always be a need to educate our young. Furthermore, it’s not likely that basic research and the funding model for research in universities will disappear. Basic research means discovery, invention, and innovation. Universities must have a TTO/OTC no matter how badly run, inefficient, or ineffective. No matter the process, some of the innovations will make it through the pipeline and into the commercial marketplace. But that is unacceptable! The lack of the classic failure mode, as with normal business, is not an excuse for poor performance. Notwithstanding the fact that a lot of the hyperbole and complaints leveled at university technology commercialization is mostly nonsense and urban myth, universities have a stewardship responsibility as instruments of the people and an obligation in the spirit of noblesse oblige to perform technology commercialization to the high standards expected of universities for any endeavor. They must contribute their share to “Go Forth and Innovate!”