Economic Conditions Shape the Future of Academic Technology Transfer

The nature of academic technology transfer is changing rapidly, driven by changing economic conditions.

Many offices were already facing pressure to minimize administrative cost, and generate positive returns, when the current recession sharpened fiscal awareness.  That double edge cut resources not only at their own institutions, but their traditional licensing partners as well.  Now sequestration threatens a significant portion of federal research funding, the results of which form the core of academic technology transfer.

Over the past year, the question has been asked more than once, what purpose is served by academic technology transfer offices, and whether the administrative cost is appropriate, when so few offices generate sufficient royalty income to offset that cost.

An answer comes from the title as well as the opening pages of  “Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest” published by the National Research Council of the National Academies:

The first goal of university technology transfer involving IP is the expeditious and wide dissemination of university-generated technology for the public good. The public good might include inputs into further research; new products and processes addressing societal needs; and generation of employment opportunities for the production, distribution, and use of new products. Although the transfer methods will vary from institution to institution depending on the history, location, and composition of the institution’s research portfolio, the goal of expeditious and wide dissemination of discoveries and inventions places IP-based technology transfer squarely within the research university’s core missions of discovery, learning, and the promotion of social well-being.1

Patenting and licensing practices should not be predicated on the goal of raising significant revenue for the institution. The likelihood of success is small, the probability of disappointed expectations high, and the risk of distorting and narrowing dissemination efforts great.2

In response, academic technology transfer has gotten creative.

  • Several institutions have made portions of their patent portfolio openly available for evaluation and development.  This approach intends to attract the interest of potential licensees that might not otherwise risk investment on early stage technology.  In exchange for a low-probability, high return standard license, there is a higher probability that the technology will be developed to return some benefit.
  • More institutions are actively encouraging entrepreneurship, utilizing foundations to manage venture investment in start-up companies.  With emphasis on job-creation, and stimulation of economic activity, this approach aligns with stated regional and national interests.  The increase in opportunity, in turn attracts attention to the region and the institution.
  • Partnership with industry has increased, including the creation of joint programs to develop early stage technology into products that fulfill specific business needs.

These and other recommendations were made by the National Research Council two years ago.  For those who see technology transfer as simply patenting and licensing, it is the end of the world as they knew it, but academic technology transfer will be fine.


1 National Research Council. Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest . Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2010. p. 2.

2 Ibid. p. 4

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