The University-Industry Demonstration Partnership has developed a beta version of a web-based tool for guiding sponsored research negotiations between academic institutions and companies, and is currently compiling feedback from UIDP members in hopes of creating a prototype version early next year.
If UIDP can develop a successful prototype, it will then seek external funding to make the tool available at first to UIDP members, and then eventually as widely as possible to interested academic and industrial organizations in the US.
UIDP unveiled the beta version of the tool, called TurboNegotiator, to attendees of its tri-annual meeting held last week at the National Academies of Science in Washington, DC.
A non-profit coalition of US universities and companies, UIDP was founded in 2006 through the National Academies to improve and expand collaborative partnerships between academia and industry.
Several early members of UIDP originally conceived of TurboNegotiator even before the group first convened, and UIDP continued developing the tool as its first major project.
In July, UIDP executive director Anthony Boccanfuso told BTW that the group was designing TurboNegotiator to facilitate research agreements between universities and industry by identifying many of the common roadblocks that derail such negotiations (see BTW, 7/23/2008).
At that time, TurboNegotiator was still in the conceptual stage and UIDP was shopping around for a development partner. Approximately one month later UIDP signed on Atlanta-area web developer MediaMacros to help with develoment, and the two organizations officially began work on the web portal in September.
At UIDP’s meeting last week, two members of the TurboNegotiator development team — Jilda Garton, associate vice provost for research at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Tyler Thompson, research partnership leader for external technology at the Dow Chemical Company — showed off many of the current features of TurboNegotiator beta in a multimedia presentation.
Currently, TurboNegotiator consists of a “public face” that can be accessed by anyone and includes informational resources such as guiding principles behind the tool, sample sponsored research contracts, case studies, FAQs, and definitions.
A secure private part of the portal is the “negotiation space,” which can support a conversation about a specific sponsored research contract between two parties. In the future, UIDP said that the tool will be able to support multiple-party conversations.
The tool, which is built on a content-management system designed to make fast transitions, also contains a public discussion forum, a private discussion forum for registered users, and a “knowledge base” with information that is similar to but more detailed than that of the public area.
In the negotiation portion of TurboNegotiator, users negotiate a contract through an interface that solicits input on basic information such as contact information, project name, milestones, et cetera.
Users then fill out questionnaires that call for yes/no, multiple choice, or short answers, as well as a comment section for each answer. The questionnaire is divided into areas such as the nature of project, intellectual property concerns, conflict of interest, publication rights, likelihood of invention, and indemnification.
“We’re not drafting contracts here; we don’t want the legal issues with that.”
The program then compares answers from each party to show areas of disagreement, agreement, and uncertainty. When all parts of a particular section have been agreed upon, the section is “completed” by the program.
After the presentation, UIDP members split into working groups to run a mock negotiation using TurboNegotiator, with the goal of soliciting feedback from users that the development group could consider incorporating in the next version of the tool.
One conference attendee asked what the actual output of the negotiation tool would likely be — in other words, whether the tool would spit out a contract ready to be signed once all areas of agreement have been reached.
Garton and Thompson stressed that the tool is initially meant to be a launching pad for negotiating a final contract by identifying the major areas of disagreement between an academic and industry entity.
“We’re not drafting contracts here; we don’t want the legal issues with that,” Garton told attendees.
She added that MediaMacros has suggested that the tool might be able to produce a suggested contract in a later phase, but “there are miles to go before we get there because we represent so many different kinds of entities. In Phase I [we] expect to see points of disagreement and agreement, and a body of knowledge to help solve them.”
Thompson added that the tool “is not going to put contract people at universities or elsewhere out of work.” Thompson also said that whether or not the tool proves valuable as an actual negotiation tool, “it should be very useful as a training tool to address the turnover problem” at tech-commercialization offices by helping to train junior members of offices through mock negotiations.
Following the meeting, Garton told BTW that the development group was in the process of sorting through “a lot of e-mail” feedback stemming from the breakout sessions, most of it “constructive and positive.”
Garton said that “people seem to see a lot of possibilities for the system,” and echoed Thompson’s ideas about using TurboNegotiator as a training tool. “There was a lot of resonance for how it can be used as a training tool for bringing in new people, or bringing in a negotiation,” she said. “There is also a lot of excitement about the body of knowledge component – capturing good practice in the industry.”
Addressing a concern raised by an industry attendee about the confidentiality of online contract negotiations, Garton said that “the actual security regime hasn’t been enabled yet. It’s designed not to give third-party access to anybody’s confidential information. That is being contemplated by the developers, and there is a clear intent to firewall off a negotiation.”
The next step for UIDP is to continue assimilating user feedback and to streamline and shorten the various questionnaires. “Any time you do a questionnaire like this it has to be pared down,” Garton said. “People look at questions and interpret them differently.” UIDP hopes to wrap up the next stage of development by February 2009, she added.
As far as the amount of funding that might be necessary for the next stage of TurboNegotiator’s development, Garton said that it will depend a lot on what the final commercial product will be. Earlier this year Boccanfuso said that UIDP, as a non-profit, was not interested in making money off of TurboNegotiator, and that it would likely charge UIDP members at most a nominal fee for maintenance – an idea that Garton reiterated to BTW.
“The original goal of UIDP was to improve the relationship between industry and funders of university research, and that’s what this is all about,” she said.
UIDP currently consists of approximately 100 member organizations, about 60 of which are universities or non-profit research institutes, and the remainder of which are companies from a wide variety of industry segments including pharmaceuticals, engineering, chemicals, and IT.