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Texas A&M’s Use of Tech Commercialization As Basis for Awarding Tenure Gains Traction

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The Texas A&M University System, which earlier this year amended its tenureship policy to include invention disclosures and the commercialization of intellectual property as criteria on which tenure can be awarded to its professors, has already seen a “significant” increase in invention disclosures this year because of the move, a university vice chancellor said this week.
 
In addition, the university next month will award tenure to a professor who didn’t publish a single scientific paper last year, but is the acting CEO of an A&M spinout company based on technology he developed, making him the first professor at the school for whom technology commercialization was a major consideration in the tenure decision.
 
However, according to one tech-transfer official, Texas A&M must avoid the pitfall of implying to its faculty that the number of invention disclosures they generate will guarantee tenure lest “undue pressure” be put on the tech-transfer office to further a professor’s career.
 
Texas A&M is the first public university to codify tech commercialization as one of the criteria upon which it grants tenure to its professors, Guy Diedrich, vice chancellor for technology commercialization, told BTW last week.
 
Other public universities may “unofficially” consider the commercialization efforts of a professor in tenure decisions and other job performance reviews, but Texas A&M has taken the unprecedented step of writing it into policy so that it impacts every one of the more than 7,500 researchers in the entire nine-campus A&M system, Diedrich said.
 
“What [the policy change] told the department heads and the colleges is that commercialization is very important, and that if we have a young tenure-track professor who comes up with a fantastic disclosure that we can [patent], that is worth something,” Diedrich said. “That is worth quite a bit, because you have distinguished yourself among your peers around the country and around the world.”
 
Although it may differ slightly from university to university, the traditional considerations for awarding tenure are teaching, publications, citizenship, and participation in the community of scholars, Diedrich said.
 
The biggest benefit of tenure for a professor is academic freedom, he added, which essentially means “freedom to conduct your research without fear of losing your job,” Diedrich said. That is not to say that it is a guarantee of lifetime employment, as tenured professors continue to undergo rigorous post-tenure reviews to ensure that they continue their career of scholarship.
 
Nevertheless, tenured professors generally have a degree of freedom that tenure-track professors do not, which is why tenured professors generally contribute the most invention disclosures to a university tech-transfer office, Diedrich said.
 
“Most tenure-track professors are doing good research, but their whole focus is on getting that research out and teaching with the intent of getting tenure,” Diedrich said.
 
“Tenure is a very, very competitive business, and not many people get it” he added. “You have to be at the very top of your field in order to get tenure. Obviously if I’m a 28-year-old, newly awarded PhD on a tenure track, I’m going to do whatever the department expects of me, and I’m going to do it to the very best of my abilities. If they tell me teaching, publication, and participation in the community of scholars are the three key criteria, then that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
 
Early Impact
 
The new policy is already paying dividends, according to Diedrich. While the university has not yet attempted to quantify the impact the effects of the new policy, Diedrich said that it has seen “quite a number of additional disclosures” that were a direct result of younger, tenure-track faculty disclosing their research for the first time.
 
In addition, the university is set to award tenure to a professor for the very first time based partially on using technology commercialization as a criterion for the decision.
 
John Criscione, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering until Sept. 1, when he will become an associate professor, joined the A&M faculty in 2001. Texas A&M professors are subject to a mandatory tenure review after six years, so Criscione hasn’t had a faster track to tenure than average.
 
Criscione, whose area of expertise is cardiovascular mechanics, did not publish a single scientific research paper last year, which is highly unusual for a professor about to receive tenure.
 
He did, however, serve as acting CEO of Corinnova, a 2004 spinout of Texas A&M based on technology Criscione helped develop.
 
With the help of the Texas A&M Office of Technology Commercialization, Corinnova was established to develop a medical device that helps restore motion to the heart muscle, which is thought to guide growth and remodeling of the heart following failure – sort of a ‘physical therapy’ for the heart, Criscione told BTW.
 
“This technology was invented in my lab,” Criscione said. “The whole idea was very academic: how does the heart grow and remodel? Once we settled on motion, it became, ‘How can we control the motion?’ There was nothing out there – no devices – so we tried to invent one.”
 
The tenure policy wasn’t formally in place when Corinnova was founded, but Criscione said that the underpinnings were there, and the OTC signalled that it wanted to support the development of the product.
 
“I didn’t necessarily want to start a company,” he said. “I just wanted to cure heart disease. I think the tech transfer office opened my eyes as to how things are done in biotech. It would be nice if someone else would come in and [license] the technology, but they educated me on the fact that in biotech, small companies do the R&D, [and if] they’re successful, they’re acquired. That’s just how it’s done.
 
“My goal has always been to provide these technologies to patients that need it, so at that point this became the only route to take – there really wasn’t an alternative,” he added.
 
Tech-transfer offices have recently come under fire on some fronts for focusing too much on commercialization and generating big revenues for the university. A corollary to this is that the whole process of tech transfer may cause professors to eschew their teaching and research duties in favor of entrepreneurial activities.
 
But Diedrich called that a “stale argument,” and said that technology commercialization typically adds value to a professor’s research.
 

“Me not publishing a paper in 2006 probably will save more people with heart disease, because this technology is actually going to get to people that need it. If I had published more papers, I don’t think that would have furthered along the technology to the marketplace.”

“If you believe that, you’re essentially saying that commercialization is not a part of the research process, and we just believe that it is,” Diedrich said. “We believe that when you take taxpayer money to sit down and do a research project, if there is a discovery that has market value, we actually have an obligation to bring that to the marketplace. It’s not an option – it is an obligation.”
 
Criscione did admit that being involved with the formation of Corinnova was a “timesink” that detracted from the traditional duties of teaching and research, as evidenced by his lack of publications last year.
 
“But at the same time, how else is the technology going to get to people that need it?” he asked. “Me not publishing a paper in 2006 probably will save more people with heart disease, because this technology is actually going to get to people that need it. If I had published more papers, I don’t think that would have furthered along the technology to the marketplace.”
 
Alan Paau, vice provost for technology transfer and economic development at Cornell University, told BTW that the concept of considering participation in tech commercialization in tenure and promotion decisions is not new – it just hasn’t been ‘officially’ codified before to avoid potential “patent counting.”
 
Paau, who has experience in the tech-transfer offices of Iowa State University and the University of California at San Diego, said that both of those schools, in addition to Cornell, very carefully consider a professor’s tech-commercialization activities in tenure and promotion decisions.
 
“But they didn’t come out and say that the number of invention disclosures and number of patents are considered,” Paau said. “And they are smart about it, because they know that any faculty member can write a lot of invention disclosures, and they don’t want to generate undue pressure on the tech transfer office, where the faculty member is saying, ‘I made a disclosure – you’d better file a patent; otherwise you might be responsible if I don’t get tenure.’”
 
Paau, who said that he is opposed to the idea of simply counting invention disclosures, added that there is an unspoken understanding at many universities that successfully turning research into licensable technologies and products is of great value and should be a basis for rewarding the researcher.
 
“When someone pays money to license it and to develop it into products, it is definitely a validation of the value of the research,” Paau said. “But all the universities that I’ve been associated with have a full appreciation of that. They just haven’t codified it into policy, [and] practically stay away from counting numbers of disclosures.”
 
Criscione pointed out that his involvement with Corinnova may eventually lead to more academic success, as well, because if the device is successful in curing heart disease, “then that does open up a whole host of questions regarding how mechanics guide growth and remodeling,” he said. “Now I have a device where I can control the heart motion and look at some of these academic questions, and ultimately that’s all I ever wanted to do. I wouldn’t have had a device if it weren’t for the commercialization aspect of this.”
 
Furthermore, Criscione said, as an engineering professor, many of his students will likely be involved in biomedical device development, “so actually having around a small business that involves hands-on activity so I can educate these students” is an asset.
 
“It just the right thing to do,” Criscione said. “Tenure is supposed to map to the school’s mission statement, so you try to retain the faculty that will help you meet your mission. Being a land-grant institution, the mission at Texas A&M actually includes commercialization and economic development. Given that, then it’s obvious to me that you want to retain faculty that will meet that mission.”

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