Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Is Easy Has Been Done

By Keith McDowell

It used to be so easy. The “lone wolf” researcher observed natural phenomena and collected data using homemade equipment. Or perhaps those with a theoretical bent puzzled over data and speculated on a new theory using only pencil, paper and their native intellect. Einstein became the poster child for the iconoclastic scientist with his unkempt appearance and penetrating, but friendly, eyes. Rarely did a polymath appear able to leap over discipline boundaries ala Superman. Such nimble gymnastics mostly weren’t needed.

But then the Twentieth Century arrived with an exponential explosion of science, engineering, and technology. Disciplinary research boundaries collapsed as interdisciplinary became the buzzword of the middle part of the century followed by multidisciplinary and now transdisciplinary in the first decade of the Twenty-First Century. The “lone wolf” or individual researcher was overrun by teams, research centers and institutes, national laboratories, industrial R&D laboratories, and now “lablets,” innovation hubs, and innovation centers. The century of the physical sciences was replaced by a spurt in the life sciences.

The structure of funding for research moved from potentates and personal donors to industry and government while the nature of the funding shifted from pure basic research with scientific significance as the principal measure for funding to use-directed research with “broader impact” – often under the umbrella of grand challenges – as a significant metric. Of course, what constitutes “broad impact” or “relevance” as it is sometimes known is mostly in the eye of the beholder. Some would even argue that the skill of grantsmanship supercedes the natural research ability of researchers when it comes to promotion or tenure. Certainly one’s record of grantsmanship is equally as important as one’s publication record, almost independent of the quality of the research.

And then we have the phenomenon of “relevance” and “broad impact” being overtaken and encompassed by the newest trend: the commercialization of university research and the desire to include innovation, commercialization, and entrepreneurial metrics as measures of faculty productivity. Even teaching with the advent of a multiplicity of “learning styles” and the concomitant introduction of many new advanced technologies for delivering content has not been immune to transformational change – not to mention the rapid expansion of the knowledge frontier and the race to keep up in lecture content and textbooks.

From another perspective, the collapse at the end of the Twentieth Century of the meso-scale or nano-scale barrier that bridges atoms and molecules to the micro-scale along with the parallel growth and ability to attack biological systems brought about a new research concept or paradigm: convergence. Convergence was celebrated by a new acronym “nbic” which stands for nano-bio-info-cogno. Later, the letter “e” was added at the end to include “eco.” Personally, I prefer to rearrange the letters of the acronym to “bnice.” Somehow, the phrase “be nice” sounds better than the geek speak “nbice.”

Coupled to the concept of convergence was the equally important, if not more important, concept of “complexity.” Complexity is in some sense a measure of the connectivity of knowledge or networks. Together, convergence and complexity along with other related events led to the creation of network science, an approach to parsing phenomena into three categories: physical, biological, and social. Network science entails a systems view of the world with layered architectures as the dominant structure and “emergent phenomena” occurring in the higher-tiered layers. Life itself is considered an emergent process in the macroworld which itself is built upon the micro-, nano-, and atomic and molecular layers. Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, postulated in his book, The Singularity is Near, that the complexity of computers is poised to surpass that of the human brain and that computers will soon become “self-aware” as an emergent phenomenon. What will happen to humankind as such self-aware computers become exponentially brilliant and able to assess all known knowledge at nearly the speed of light?

Will scientific research ever get a pink slip? John Horgan in his book The End of Science would make us believe so. Convergence, network science, and complexity theory might lead us to think so as we pull together all branches of science into the final grand frontier. It is an interesting debate, best left for now to the coffee klatch and student debate. It certainly is the case that full access to the nanoscale and BNICE convergence have brought about the social phenomena of self-assembly of STEM and health personnel into teams taking on societal problems. Furthermore, global competition and the resulting explosion in the commercialization of university research have taken us to the transdisciplinary age with STEM and health teams joining forces with business and legal teams as well as those who understand the social dimensions to ensure prosperity for Americans. As I like to tell my colleagues in all fields of endeavor, what is easy has been done! Get used to it!
What are the implications for this massive paradigm shift in how we do research, keeping in mind that the scientific method per se has not changed? Indeed, ARE there any implications, especially for the innovation ecosystem? Certainly, we must at a minimum be aware that a transformation has occurred however one chooses to characterize it. In my experience, far too many people simply don’t get it and merely view what is happening as a treadmill dialed to a faster speed. While that is true, it is only a fraction of the real story.
In other articles and in Go Forth and Innovate, I’ve addressed in my opinion some of the changes that need to occur in grantsmanship, publication of research, peer review, research compliance, and a retuning of academe to replace the service function with a community engagement function that includes all aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship. Each of these areas and many more deserve a detailed review. But it is important that such reviews and the subsequent changes that are made be understood within the broader context of how the scientific endeavor has changed. It is important for all to understand that what is easy has been done.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Who's in Charge?

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
  • Valuation
  • Protection as intellectual property (IP)
  • Formation of business plan
  • Marketing
  • Licensing
  • 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.