ORLANDO, Fla. – Why do tech-transfer offices do what they do? Primarily to provide a service to faculty entrepreneurs, according to preliminary data from a recent survey of tech-transfer office directors from US academic and research institutions.
Not surprisingly, tech-transfer offices are also frequently motivated by the desire to translate university research results into commercial goods and services — but much less so by a desire to maximize licensing revenue or provide research support, the survey revealed.
Irene Abrams, executive director of the Brandeis University Office of Technology Licensing, shared the results with attendees of the Association of University Technology Managers annual meeting, held here last week.
Abrams, who conducted the survey with Ashley Stevens, executive director of the Office of Technology Transfer at Boston University, presented their preliminary findings during an AUTM session entitled "Changing Perspectives for the Technology Transfer Office." During the session, a panel of university tech-transfer officials discussed the different financial, social, scientific, and educational motivators behind their profession.
According to Abrams, she and Stevens sent a survey a little over a year ago to tech-transfer office directors at US universities, non-profit research institutions, and hospitals.
Abrams said that 130, or approximately half, of the institutions surveyed provided meaningful responses, but those respondents were responsible for about 80 percent of the total academic research spending in the US.
She said that about three-fourths of all respondents hailed from universities, while the rest represented research institutions and hospitals.
The survey asked about concrete metrics such as funding, licensing deals, technology disclosures, and licensing revenue, Abrams said, thereby mirroring AUTM's annual technology-licensing survey in some aspects.
However, the pair also asked participants to rank the following categories in order of importance in motivating their offices: "faculty service," "translating research results," "revenue maximization," "research support," "risk management," and "other."
Fifty-one respondents, or about 39 percent, ranked "faculty service" first; and 45 respondents, or about 35 percent ranked "translating research results" first. Meantime, 15 respondents each ranked "revenue maximization" or "other" first; and four said that "research support" was their primary driver. None chose "risk management" as their primary driver.
The researchers also broke down the survey data by the size of the institution based on its research budget and whether the tech-transfer office was profitable or not.
The breakdown results turned out to be very similar to the overall statistics, although Abrams and Stevens discovered that the smallest schools tended to value "faculty service" more highly, while the largest schools tended most often to rank "translation of research results" as the most important driver.
In addition, institutions that already saw a net profit from their tech-transfer activities tended to value "revenue maximization" a bit more highly than other drivers. However, the importance of "revenue maximization" dropped again for institutions that boasted the most profitable, or self-sustaining, tech-transfer offices.
One session panelist, Wes Blakeslee, executive director of technology transfer at Johns Hopkins University, summed up this phenomenon by relaying a quote that he attributed to an undisclosed senior tech-transfer official at Harvard University: "In university tech transfer, it's not about the money, until there is money."
[ pagebreak ]
Blakeslee said that Johns Hopkins, which in the past has been criticized for not generating tech-transfer revenues that reflect its US-leading research budget, said that the school tends to employ a faculty-driven model of tech transfer.
"Part of why you do technology transfer is to provide an attractive institution for the top researchers, because most of them want a good tech-transfer program at their institution," Blakeslee said. "If the top researchers come to your institution, they bring in research dollars."
Similarly, Abrams said that Brandeis' tech-transfer office was created just in the last decade primarily out of pressure from the university's external advisory board "because they wanted to recruit and retain faculty."
The moderator of the panel, Jennifer Murphy, director of technology transfer at George Mason University, echoed these comments. "Our tech-transfer office is very faculty-service oriented," she said. "The administration sees it as a faculty-retention and -recruitment tool."
'Responsibilities to the Region'
The panel also consisted of representatives from tech-transfer offices that claimed some of the other categories as the most important drivers of their behavior.
For instance, John Fraser, assistant vice president for research and economic development at Florida State University, told session attendees that it is a "sterile discussion" as to whether a tech-transfer office is a service organization or is driven primarily by revenues.
"The answer is both," Fraser said. "The goal at FSU is to help the institution achieve its overall goals, full stop." These goals include all of the categories touched upon in the survey, he added.
Meantime, panelist Kenneth Preston, associate vice president for research at the University of Akron, said that the UA Research Foundation, the non-profit tech-transfer and research arm of the university, conducts much of its business to support the school's "responsibilities to the region" in terms of wealth creation.
Indeed, UA was cited in a 2007 National Science Foundation-funded report as one of the 10 best universities in the US to use tech transfer to drive economic development in its region (see BTW, 11/19/2007).
Brandeis' Abrams conceded that the survey left out the category of economic development, and theorized that institutions believing that category to be a top driver may have chosen "other."
Lastly, Michael Batalia, associate director of the Office of Technology Asset Management at Wake Forest University, provided the perspective of an office that is driven more by the idea of maximizing licensing revenue.
"We do have a different model than most," Batalia said. "We've focused more on return on investment in the past six or seven years. People say that it's not about the money … well, it's a little bit about the money."
Wake Forest puts a significant amount of funding into prototyping of technology to make it more attractive to potential licensees or commercialization partners, he said.
To help it devise a plan of attack for developing a technology, the Wake Forest OTAM typically assembles a three-person team comprising an OTAM technology manager, the researcher or inventor, and a serial entrepreneur or business executive.
He said that the team typically defines a milestone-driven development plan that is linked to internal funding. Seeking intellectual property protection is not necessarily the first step and, in consultation with the commercialization team, the OTAM will make 'go-or-no-go' decisions based on satisfying the technology-development milestones.
The approach has worked for Wake Forest thus far. According to AUTM US Licensing Survey data, in 2007, the most recent year for which data were available, Wake Forest ranked fifth among reporting colleges and universities in terms of licensing revenue with $71.2 million, despite not ranking in the top 10 in other categories such as disclosures, licenses executed, or patenting.
A good deal of that licensing income was wrapped up into a few technologies, Batalia said. The university finds itself embroiled in an ongoing legal row regarding one of those key technologies: a negative pressure wound therapy invented at the school (see BTW, 1/7/2009).
Batalia also admitted that Wake Forest's model "doesn't work for everything. Therapeutic development, for instance, is a long process" that requires years of development and funding, something a university is typically not equipped to provide. "We do play a little in that area," Batalia added, but for the most part, the school focuses on medical devices, imaging, nanotechnology, and computer science.
Abrams summed up the difficulty in untangling different behavioral drivers at most tech-transfer offices: "If you're getting the technology out there, it is likely going through a commercialization route. The more volume you get out there, the happier faculty will be, and the more revenues you will receive."
Abrams said that she and Stevens are continuing to compile data from their survey and are seeking to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal.