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Report: Focus on Niche Research Areas Can Advance Tech Transfer at ‘Emerging’ Schools


Diane Palmintera
Founder and President
Innovation Associates
NAME: Diane Palmintera
POSITION: Founder and president, Innovation Associates, since 1988
BACKGROUND: Held various senior and consulting positions with the US Conference of Mayors, National Governors Association, and National Alliance of Business
Founded in 1988, Reston, Va.-based Innovation Associates provides consulting services to academic, corporate, and public entities to promote innovation, technology transfer, and commercialization, with a particular focus on technology-based economic development.
The company counts among its clients the National Science Foundation, US Economic Development Administration, US Small Business Administration, Commission of the European Union, and several undisclosed US states, foreign ministries, universities, and corporations.
Last month, Innovation Associates released an NSF-funded135-page report entitled Technology Transfer and Commercialization Partnerships, which presented case studies of 10 “emerging” universities in the areas of technology transfer and the creation of start-up companies: Alfred University, Brigham Young University, Florida A&M University, Iowa State University, Montana State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Springfield Technical Community College, University of Akron, University of Central Florida, and University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The report followed on the heels of the company’s 2005 report entitled Accelerating Economic Development through University Technology Transfer, which presented best practices from the top 10 university technology transfer and commercialization programs.
The full report and its executive summary can be downloaded here. Last week, Diane Palmintera, Innovation Associates’ co-founder and president, and principal author of the reports, chatted with BTW about the motivation for the new report, the reasons for tech-transfer success at smaller institutions, and how governmental and funding agencies might help other limited-resource schools achieve similar success.

What was the impetus for this report?
Innovation Associates [did] an [earlier] report called Accelerating Economic Development through University Technology Transfer, which focused on the stars, if you will, in university technology transfer – Stanford, [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], [Georgia Institute of Technology], et cetera. It thoroughly examined the tech-transfer processes that they use.
Frankly, when I was asked to speak at conferences and such about the report, inevitably someone would ask a question along the lines of, “Well, that’s wonderful for Stanford and Silicon Valley, but we’re in Arkansas or Iowa, and we don’t have a Stanford in our backyard, and we’re not Silicon Valley. But we’ve got a lot of really good things going on here.”
I approached the NSF and the Partnerships for Innovation program, and said that we wanted to take a better look at some of the universities that are having a lot of success in tech transfer that are smaller universities with smaller programs, but go virtually unnoticed by the venture capital world and corporations looking for technologies, who continue to go mainly to major universities. They are probably not even aware of the excellent work going on at lesser-known universities across the country.
That was the impetus for this, to take a look at so-called emerging universities – those that were not in the top 50 for R&D expenditures, yet had substantial programs – and looked at what they were doing and how they were doing it. We selected universities to provide a variety, but we also looked at the [Association of University Technology Managers] data on startups, licenses, patents, et cetera; focusing really more on licensing and startups relative to their research expenditures [as reported by NSF].
Did that include industry-sponsored research?
It does. It includes everything. What we don’t have in the report that we did take a look at was the percentage of industry-sponsored research as a percentage of the whole. We didn’t discuss that in the report. But in selecting the universities, we really did lean toward universities that had a higher percentage than the national average of R&D that was sponsored by industry.
For instance, RPI, the University of Akron, and Alfred University all had higher percentages of total R&D that were sponsored by industry.
Does this play into the idea that forming close industry ties is one of the ways to foster tech-transfer success at resource-limited schools?
It does play into that. Several of our other examples had a high percentage of industry-sponsored R&D.
As written in the report, each institution had several factors that contributed to its success. Did you find common factors that were much more important than others?
We found a lot of common factors. Some of the common factors with emerging universities, in terms of tech transfer and commercialization, were very much the same as those factors we found for the ‘star’ universities such as MIT and Stanford. One of those, frankly, was leadership from the university president. That was a very strong factor. Where the university president made tech transfer a priority and engaged his department chairs and deans; and developed hiring practices that favored industry experience and industry relations; and promoted professors by including their success in commercializing their research – that was very important.
We also found that where universities, especially smaller ones, focused on niche research areas, and where they identified their core competencies, [they had success]. You would think that universities know where they’re strong in their research, and it’s surprising how many don’t. They know the really big areas, but several of them, when they hired consultants to figure out where their strengths lie in R&D, were surprised at some of the areas that were showing up – some of them in biotech, as a matter of fact, or niche areas within biotech.
So a key factor was identifying those strengths, focusing on them, and building on them by going after federal funding aggressively.
Do you think the same holds true in terms of using those core strengths to foster industry ties in those areas?
Absolutely. Some universities are better at this than others. In the biotech area, the University of Pittsburgh is an example that went aggressively after National Institutes of Health money, but also tried to develop ties with industry. You find that also at the University of Pennsylvania, especially in biotech. It’s really critical that the universities do establish ties. In the end, when the research is commercialized, it either goes two ways: You’re going to license it to an existing firm, or you’re going to develop a startup. Establishing those ties early on is always a wise approach.
One of the things that we found that is an issue and needs further exploration and more work on industry’s and universities’ part is that as universities have become more experienced in tech transfer, they’ve become less flexible in terms of working with industry. Meanwhile, industry over the last several years is increasingly complaining to many universities that they don’t have the flexibility to deal directly with researchers, as they used to; that the tech-transfer offices immediately get involved and want to establish formal relationships and legal agreements before either the university or industry knows whether there is any commercial potential at all. This has been told to me over and over again by directors of different research centers that wish to remain anonymous.
Do you think that some of the ‘stars’ of tech transfer are more guilty of that than the smaller institutions just because they have the leverage of multiple innovations and potential partners?
It’s hard to say, because universities really do differ. You find some stars that work very well with industry. But generally, I think that assumption has some merit. Take smaller schools, like UNC-Charlotte. They have some outstanding biotech research going on there in some smaller niche areas. They are reaching out to industry, and want to work with them. Some of the emerging institutions are more willing to be flexible and are easier to work with because they’re hungrier.
One of the report’s recommendations was that industry should be looking more to these smaller emerging institutions. What is keeping them from doing that now?
Industry, as with venture capitalists, tends to go back to the same universities over and over. And in part, it’s that the universities are not doing as good a job as they should in getting the word out about different types of research they are doing, especially in these niche areas.
Do you think that universities might present their tech-transfer metrics in a way that is more telling of their ability to translate research dollars into commercial successes, and that smaller schools would gain more recognition this way?
Yes. I think that perhaps NSF and other organizations may play a role here in trying to develop the metrics a little better, and trying to target more in terms of commercialization results by discipline, for instance, and also by research expenditures to see who is doing what. I think that would help.
Some universities are better at publicizing their tech-transfer success than others. Some have better web-based services where technologies are readily identifiable by a category, as well.
You also recommended in the report that policy makers help address the commercial side of tech transfer by exploring options to bridge the valley of death. What types of actions are you recommending policy makers take in this area?
What I’d like to see, and what the advisory committee for this project, which includes some very high-level presidents of universities, would like to see, is the recognition that there definitely is a valley of death. Usually when this is spoken of it refers to a lack of early-stage capital. While that definitely is a factor, there are other factors, as well, such as the ability of these high-tech spinoffs to develop business and management skills that are required in terms of market identification; and technology maturation, where the technology is just not mature enough to get a VC or earlier stage funder interested in it, or even a company that’s willing to license it.
We would like to see NSF or another agency perhaps develop an experimental program that would fund various proposals on ways to bridge some of these gaps, to identify some programs or practices that do an effective job of this. Basically this would help identify and develop some new solutions in this area.

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