The University of Delaware last week announced a pair of initiatives designed to foster closer ties with state industry and government, speed technology commercialization, and stimulate regional economic development.
The initiatives – an Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership and an Institute of Business and Economic Research – will work closely with UD’s existing tech-transfer office to promote collaboration with industry at a much earlier stage and in emerging cross-disciplinary areas such as energy, environmental science, life sciences, and materials science, university officials said.
“We need to reconfigure ourselves at the university so we can be responsive to emerging areas,” Dan Rich, UD’s provost, told BTW last week. “Faculty tends to be organized by discipline, in departments and colleges. The opportunities that exist in the world are not necessarily organized in that way, but are increasingly organized in ways that are confounding to the traditional structure of higher education.”
Rich said that UD began to more seriously evaluate its current role in technology and economic development in the winter of 2006, in anticipation of the arrival of incoming president Patrick Harker, who was elected to his position in December.
UD set up a university-wide task force led by Rich that put together a list of current activities in this area across the campus and identified a series of recommendations moving forward. “One of the main outcomes was that the university should be much more active in convening the leadership of the private and government sectors with higher education to explore the opportunities for knowledge-based partnerships, and what we as a university could do to better support those relationships,” Rich said.
Rich said that UD looked at various models around the country for inspiration, and paid particular attention to the Research Triangle Park model in North Carolina, one of the oldest and most successful industry-academia frameworks in the US.
Harker announced the creation of the entities at a conference entitled “Creating Knowledge-Based Partnerships: Challenges and Opportunities,” held Nov. 2 on the UD campus.
At the conference, Harker said that the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership will serve as a point of contact for those in the public and private sectors seeking access to UD’s expertise, programs, and services, according to a UD news article.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Business and Economic Research, which will be housed in UD’s Lerner College of Business and Economics, is designed to bring together the expertise of faculty and staff across the campus to study various avenues of UD’s role in regional business and economic development.
The new office and institute will overlap to some degree with existing research and technology development concerns on campus. According to Rich, the common thread for all of the entities is facilitating industry collaboration at the very earliest stages.
“You’re aggregating many partners that have to come together right at the outset of the process,” Rich said. “The collaborations have to begin early – even the formulation of where the priorities are for the research. Some of that comes from the university and the researchers, but some of it is from industry.
“When you fragment the process, one group is generating the ideas, and the other is commercializing the products, but they haven’t worked together before,” he added. “If the collaboration starts right at the beginning, then everybody has a stake in the IP that is generated.”
“When you fragment the process, one group is generating the ideas, and the other is commercializing the products, but they haven’t worked together before. If the collaboration starts right at the beginning, then everybody has a stake in the IP that is generated.”
One of UD’s first efforts along these lines was when it established the Delaware Biotechnology Institute in 2001, Rich said. Located on the UD campus in Newark, UDI is a partnership between governmental, academic, and industrial entities in Delaware including UD, Delaware State University, Delaware Technical & Community College, Wesley College, Christiana Care Health System, the Helen Graham Cancer Center, the Alfred duPont Hospital for Children, DuPont, and AstraZeneca, among others.
Rich said that UD estimates that the DBI has been responsible for some 12,000 primary and secondary jobs in the state since it was established.
The Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership will also be charged with making sure that these early academic-industry collaborations span multiple areas of expertise to address emerging opportunities for technology development and economic growth.
Rich said that critical examples of this include energy and environmental sciences, both of which bank on innovation in the life sciences, materials science, and chemistry fields, among others. Rich also said that the area of life sciences is also rapidly expanding beyond biomedical sciences in terms of marketable technologies. “All of these areas require that we bring together expertise from across many disciplines,” he said.
‘Critical Facilitation’ vs. Bureaucracy
Fostering closer ties to industry is not a radical step for larger research universities to take nowadays. However, the way in which the technology transfer, economic development, and industrial liaison offices are structured varies widely from school to school.
Some universities house all offices related to industry and government collaborations and technology transfer under one roof, while others lump together a few of those activities; and still others maintain distinct offices for governmental, industrial, and tech-transfer concerns.
It appears as if UD is heading toward the latter direction, but with significant overlap. In addition to the new offices, UD also has an Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer Office, which is housed in the Office of Research and Graduate Studies; and the UD Technology Corporation, a non-profit arm of UD that Rich said is more akin to an “advisory group” that facilitates industry-academic partnerships through licensing.
One advantage of this type of organization is that the school can provide dedicated resources to each office, thereby lessening the workload that might otherwise fall in the lap of one office. A downside, however, is that it plays into recent criticism from industry that technology development collaborations with academic institutions have become a bureaucratic minefield in recent years.
“Usually that translates into a concern about who’s going to control IP,” Rich said. “This and every other university has got an obligation to protect the IP that is generated by its faculty and students; otherwise, we couldn’t be successful as a university. Then you want to share those technologies with others.
“Because the economy is more dependent on knowledge generation than ever before, depending on which side of the prism you look at this from, one person’s critical facilitation is another person’s bureaucracy,” Rich added. “It is true that large-scale organizations, whether they’re universities or not, have a multiple set of demands. The question is how to create a structure to help navigate the pathway through these issues. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”