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Early Data from MIT Study Hints at Link Between Interdisciplinary Research and Tech Transfer

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Does a greater degree of inter-disciplinary collaboration within and among universities lead to more entrepreneurship and technology transfer?

Early results of a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management suggests that it might — but only to an extent, as their work also seems to indicate that interdisciplinary teams must be tightly knit and have a local flavor for it to work.

The findings, which have not yet been published, stem from research undertaken last year by Fiona Murray, a professor of technological innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan; and Michaël Bikard, a second-year PhD candidate in Murray's department.

Murray and Bikard originally set out to examine the different modes by which technology transfer occurs across different scientific disciplines, and how those modes feed into tech transfer as a market, with technology push from academic institutions and technology pull from industry.

They chose to examine these dynamics at MIT because of its long history of tech transfer and the highly interdisciplinary nature of scientific research at the school.

For instance, MIT has consistently ranked among the top 10 universities in the nation in patents, start-up companies, and licensing revenues in recent surveys of licensing activity by the Association of University Technology Managers. In addition, a September 2006 report by the Milken Institute on university biotechnology transfer and commercialization ranked MIT first worldwide on biotech-transfer outcome measures such as patenting, licensing income, and startups.

As part of their study, Murray and Bikard considered tech-transfer activities of 892 MIT faculty members in seven departments from 1976 to 2006, focusing on the departments of electrical engineering and computer science; chemical engineering; material science and engineering; mechanical engineering; biology; chemistry; and physics.

Working under the hypothesis that tech transfer happens via myriad channels, they examined a number of proxies for tech-transfer activity such as publications, including total number and the number coauthored with industry; patenting, including total number, co-patenting with industry, and licensing; and company interactions, such as founding or membership on advisory boards or boards of directors.

Overall, the researchers found that cross-departmental scientific collaboration at MIT is on the rise, as only 20 percent of authoring teams from the departments they analyzed crossed department borders in the 1980s whereas today that figure is over 35 percent.

They also found that the average science and engineering project at MIT in terms of number of collaborators is more than 30 percent larger than similar projects at other US universities.

Murray and Bikard also discovered that MIT is highly collaborative with industry, as more than 50 percent of current faculty members from the departments studied publish together with industrial partners.

The researchers, who presented preliminary results of their research at a tech-transfer conference last October, are currently delving further into their data to examine the correlation between the interdisciplinarity of research, industrial interactions, and tech transfer.

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According to a correlation matrix Bikard e-mailed to BTW, the degree of interdisciplinarity and degree of industry involvement in MIT research appear to have a positive correlation.

Conversely, there seemed to be a strong negative correlation between both degree of interdisciplinarity and degree of industry involvement and the geographic distance between collaborators, the matrix shows.

The data indicates that "there seems to be a trade-off between within-discipline, long-distance (and highly cited) collaboration … and interdisciplinary, local, industry-oriented (overall less cited) collaboration," Bikard told BTW in his e-mail.

However, he cautioned that the data is preliminary, and that "even if the trend is confirmed in other tables/results, it is too early for me to tell if this effect is real or if it is an artifact of the way I manipulated the data."

Regardless, Bikard noted that the data seemed to reveal some other interesting facts about the correlation between tech transfer, interdisciplinary science, and locality.

"The ‘globalization of science,' [in which] authoring teams are more and more international, does not seem to [go] hand in hand with a ‘globalization of tech transfer,'" Bikard said.

On the contrary, he said, tech transfer activity during the current decade seems to remain local and is performed by relatively small teams of about seven authors on average per publication on which industry partners also participated.

In addition, he said, the data suggests that although the size of teams publishing with the private sector has been increasing, this increase has been much slower than the overall increase in the number of researchers on a team.

Further, he said that the data suggests that while scientific collaboration in general is becoming more international — more than 40 percent of all researcher addresses on MIT publications during the current decade are ex-US — industry collaboration is more localized, with only 20 percent of the addresses on publications involving the private sector being international. Bikard noted similar trends in patenting.

"The pattern really seems to be that interdisciplinary work and tech transfer happen locally in rather small teams," Bikard summarized. "More basic science, on the other hand, seem[s] to involve (on average) larger and larger disciplinary and international teams.

"In other words, tech transfer is increasingly a collective endeavor, but not all types of collaboration lead to tech transfer," he added. "The ‘archetype' tech-transfer team seems local, quite interdisciplinary, and relatively small."

If further research supports these analyses, the study could make a case for universities to establish more partnerships with local industrial concerns in order to boost technology commercialization.

However, Bikard's findings could also be a chicken-and-egg situation, with the observed data a result of the fact that MIT has been part of a highly collaborative, highly local ecosystem of industrial collaboration for many years.

Bikard said that the research is still a work in progress. The researchers hope to submit a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal by May.

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