Universities face significant opportunities and challenges in how they internally organise themselves and invest their…
Technology Transfer Management is a broad title covering the complete “how-to” of overseeing ideas move from an academic setting to a commercial or industrial environment. Many universities and institutions have a dedicated office for dealing with Technology Transfer, usually called the Technology Transfer Office, TTO (other common alternatives are Office for Technology Transfer, Research Commercialisation Office, and Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation Office). The operational roles and responsibilities of these offices can vary from institution to institution; therefore care should be taken if one if comparing offices as individual metrics such as staff numbers can be misleading. In many situations the terms Technology Transfer and Knowledge Transfer are used interchangeably; however Knowledge Transfer covers a much broader range of activities. For this article I will take Technology Transfer to be the transfer of a tangible university-developed asset (for example a patentable invention) to an interested external party.
It should be noted that there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question of Technology Transfer Management, and what may work perfectly in one setting could be a flawed route for another. Rather than attempting to create a “how-to” guide, in this article, I will present a small selection of ideas for the necessary ingredients for both the process of Technology Transfer and the skills required for the role. These insights are based on my experience at the University of Vienna. I use the term TT Officer to refer to any person involved in the Technology Transfer process.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing a TTO is that of awareness, both of the services which are on offer but also in the responsibilities of the employees to inform the office (note that this varies from country to country). With the increased demand for commercial innovation within universities, the field has huge potential for growth, particularly as a previously underused source of research income. The support of the University’s upper management is crucial for this to function effectively. A TT Officer cannot perform the role of both facilitator and police officer; if an academic is not co-operating some level of institutional back-up is required.
Working in such an inter-disciplinary environment gives the TT Officer a diverse working experience and two days are rarely the same. Each new technology is different, and each academic will have their own ideas of how they would like to see it commercialised. The structure of the TTO should allow the TT Officer the flexibility to choose a strategy for each individual case. Related to this, the size of the office can play a significant role as having a larger team leads to a more diverse set of backgrounds and opinions. Additionally it allows for a “second pair of eyes” to check and give feedback on any critical decisions. That said care should be taken to minimise any bureaucracy which may be associated with larger organisations.
Linked to this is the need for regular assessment, both of processes and how also effectively the TTO is functioning; the most often used metric to measure is impact. This can be based on financial measures such as income streams, or success stories of assistance to Start-Up companies, media presence or facilitating new research avenues.
Budget is also important, not just in the amount of money but also in the flexibility which the TT Officer has to use it. Patenting is an expensive process, and can easily run into the tens of thousands of Euros. In some cases it can be prudent to invest in additional resources to assess a new technology, but the budget must allow for this. Another example is to bring in outside counsel in case of potential legal issues.
In many ways the skills of the TT Officer are the most important aspect of the process. Either as an individual or a team, these are the people who will lead the interactions on both the academic and commercial side. Working “on the coal face” of both academia and industry, the TT Officer plays a key facilitating role.
As such there is no single route or qualification into Technology Transfer, as a very broad skillset is required. For this reason bigger offices can benefit from having a larger team with more diverse skills. A successful TT Officer needs the ability to quickly gain skills in multiple subject fields. Working with academics, particularly in the science and technology subjects, many of whom are at or near the forefront of their respective fields requires the ability to “get up to speed” with their topic; an ability to apply such a wide breadth of knowledge is key. In this aspect previous academic qualifications aid the process but cannot offer insight into every specialisation. However purely understanding a new technology is not sufficient to assess the legal, economic and associated risk aspects of its potential development; additional skills are required to develop a business case. These skills can be developed and should be regularly updated. There are many courses and workshops offered by both professional organisations and also private companies, and it is prudent for a TT Officer to keep their knowledge up to date.
To be able to perform all these tasks can be challenging, and another skill of the TT Officer is the ability to assess one’s own limit, and when to bring in additional assistance. As discussed above, bringing in outside legal counsel or patent attorneys may not always be a viable option financially, but as a minimum the TT Officer should be both able to and know when to talk with colleagues at the university.
An often overlooked ingredient is that of personal networks. I aim to constantly build and maintain my network, connecting with people on a personal level. Such a network aims to serve two purposes.
1) Removing obstacles
In the case of any future collaborations, pre-existing connections remove the need for initial introductions and allow for an optimised route through the transfer process. This can be through fellow TT Officers at other universities (for example coming to agreements on ownership and commercialisation strategy on a single piece of technology developed across multiple universities) or contacts within companies and industries.
2) Alternative approaches
Each individual TTO operates differently, with variations in procedure and methodology. Talking to staff members and viewing operations in other TTOs can give valuable insights to be used by the TT Officer to shape their own methods. There may also be regional or national legal requirements (for example in some countries an initial patent filing must be in the home country) and an understanding of these can facilitate collaboration with other TTOs.
3) Raising awareness
Technology Transfer is often seen as a relatively small specialisation, for both university and industry, and therefore gaining connections outside as well as inside the field makes the work of the TT Officer both more accessible and demonstrable. This can take many forms, from activities and workshops within the host institution, working with local or social media to advertise success stories or even just visiting individual researchers and explaining how the TTO can be of benefit to them.
It is also of great benefit to be a member of a professional network. This not only connects the TT Officers with like-minded professionals but assistance in their role often via access to a large library of resources in additional to running workshops and training courses.
Technology Transfer Management is a highly diverse field, and the optimal procedure depends on a multitude of factors. Institutional support and acceptance is critical but at the same time but not create a rigid and overbearing structure. The TTO Officer must be allowed the freedom to select the best route for commercialisation. As discussed above there is no ideal route into the field, but a successful TT Officer must be able to quickly pick up and actively work with new skills in fields as diverse as law, finance, marketing and of course the subject area of the technology to be commercialised.
Closing note: The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and may not reflect the official policy of any other group, agency, organisation, institution or employer.
Author: Tom Withnell, Technology Transfer Manager, University of Vienna
Email: [email protected]
Image credit: University of Vienna