Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Measuring the Success of Technology Transfer Offices (and the field)

There is a glaring critique of the university technology transfer enterprise and perhaps the underlying Bayh-Dole Act in the United States.  That critique is based upon the fact that many university technology transfer offices fail to bring in enough funding through licensing or other activities to cover their own costs let alone make money for the university.  Indeed, only a handful of U.S. universities appear to make substantial amounts of revenue.  An additional criticism of the university technology transfer field generally has been that technology transfer offices (and really, the administrators above them) have been too focused on using revenue generated as a metric for success.  This focus arguably can distort the universities’ general mission directed to the public good, including skewing the incentives for academics.  For example, academics can be pushed to adopt research agendas focused on solving practical problems instead of engaging in basic science, which may ultimately have broader public benefits.  At the confluence of these two critiques is the issue of what should be the proper metric(s)for judging success for the technology transfer office and the field in general.  For sure, U.S. universities are feeling the “pinch” of less government monies for research and are looking for alternative funding sources, such as crowdfunding for academic research.  However, even with that pressure, adminstrators and faculty should judge the success of their technology transfer office based on criteria that flow from the mission of the university and that are aligned with its objectives.  So, when is it a success or not?  What are the right metrics?

Valerie Landrio McDevitt, Joelle Mendez-Hinds, David Winwood, Vinit Nijhawan,Todd Sherer, John F. Ritter, and Paul R. Sanberg, have authored a paper titled, “More than Money: The Exponential Impact of Academic Technology Transfer.”  The paper sets forth the benefits of technology transfer beyond revenue alone and perhaps provides the starting point for the development of additional metrics to judge the success of technology transfer offices.  Here are the benefits described by the authors:

Revenue generation

Unrestricted funds to institution from license income

Direct personal financial benefit to inventors and authors

Increased opportunities for funding

Eligibility for funding by compliance with federal regulations requiring a technology transfer program

Increased opportunities for interinstitutional and interdisciplinary grants

Outreach, licensing, and facilitation of new startups yield new funding partnerships

Increased opportunities for funding sources requiring a commercial partner, for example, SBIR and STTR

Facilitates establishment of international research relationships

Promotes a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation

Successes increase university brand and prestige

Enhances university fundraising efforts

Opportunities to strengthen donor ties by engagement with startups

Positively factors into high level recruitment efforts

Positively affects retention of high-producing and high-potential faculty

Student success

Provides opportunities to participate in real world translational research

Provides exposure to the process of obtaining intellectual property protection

Strengthens prospects of finding jobs and being successful

Public benefit

Fulfills the university’s larger missions to address social, medical, environmental, or technical problems

Improves the quality of life

Economic development

Revenue from university licensing positively affects the US economy

Brings money into the state or region

Aids in the retention of local talent

New university startups create high-wage jobs

It may be difficult to measure some of these “benefits.”  But, what do you think of some of these as potential metrics?  For sure, some of the most beneficial programs often bring to the table attributes that are difficult to measure.  And, surely, metrics such as revenue generation, invention disclosures, patents granted, patents applied for, patents licensed, number of start-ups and other traditional metrics still have some place in the game.  (Hat tip to Technology Transfer Tactics for a lead to the paper.) 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is, as you highlight at the beginning of the post, a controversial area because so few university tech transfer offices break even. The McDevitt paper does not address that issue and is really one-sided support for university tech transfer. What we need is an unbiased objective appraisal of why tech transfer offices fail so often. I suspect it's because only particular types of research can be commercialised. For example follow on research (where patent claims of narrow scope would be obtained) may not be suitable, and if a research team or university is doing a lot of that then perhaps it's better not to attempt tech transfer. I think if a tech transfer office cannot break even something is seriously wrong and the metrics which the paper describes don't help in sorting things out. The US has the most data and the most experience with university tech transfer. They are most likely to solve its problems, but first those problems have to be acknowledged properly.