An entrepreneurial spirit is soaring on campus to almost everyone's
If you have not checked recently, you may be surprised to find that
it will probably cost more to hire a top-notch technology transfer
leader than an academic department head. Once considered little more
than a suspicious weed in the groves of academia, the intellectual
property process at universities has been growing like kudzu. The
number of patents granted to universities has reached over 3,000 per
year—a 10-fold increase over the last 20 years. Many schools
have had to start or expand their IP and tech transfer offices to handle
the vast influx of new invention disclosures. Even MIT's
Technology Review magazine now ranks the tech transfer performance
of major universities in the United States on an annual basis. But
if only 15 to 20 percent of faculty members across the nation have
a serious interest in developing patents and commercializing their
work, what is all the fuss? Why does every university wish to highlight
their technology transfer accomplishments and encourage the IP process?
With state budget cuts in education and endowments eaten away by
the recession, universities are scrambling for money. Gone are the
days of big budgets for basic research. Consequently, schools tout
the impact of their research on economic development and societal progress
to state legislatures, funding agencies, foundations, and Congress. Logic
says that more relevant research leads to more financial support.
But technology transfer doesn't just bring in cash from grants.
There is money to be made in commercialization. And most schools have
at least one story of some great invention or process that "got
away". In the 1970s, administrators here at the North Carolina
State University surrendered the intellectual property rights to work
done on campus to the faculty member who led the research. His software
company now has gross revenues of about $1 billion annually.
Technology transfer also helps build partnerships. By linking
up with industry, faculty members and other researchers have the opportunity
to launch spin-off companies with the aid of venture capital. This
is especially true for engineering faculty members who naturally have
an applied bent. In fact, savvy faculty recruits ask about university
support and service in the tech transfer and IP areas during the interview
Not everyone agrees that commercializing university research benefits
society. Some argue that because IP licenses need to be negotiated
each time someone else uses or adds to the invention, the IP process
slows down the transfer of knowledge from federally funded research
projects to other researchers in the field. These researchers could
potentially verify results and develop the technology at a faster pace.
Another common complaint is that the large number of IP claims overwhelms
the offices that handle them. And some think that industrial groups
will use IP ownership to impede development in order to protect their
own existing markets.
Whatever the case, tech transfer has become a major component of
the university system. It is now commonplace for schools to provide
academic entrepreneur programs, incubator space, and access to local
venture capital funds for faculty members. The University of North
Carolina system has encouraged the process and received a grant from
the NSF to assess and evaluate the tech transfer offices and culture
throughout the 16-campus system. The idea has been to transfer
the expertise from the technology-mature campuses to the smaller campuses
in the system. In turn, these smaller campuses have been eager
to learn and now appreciate the value of technology transfer.
The culture of technology transfer can vary widely depending on the
mix of faculty, disciplines, and local economies. Each program must
be tailored for success. But strike the right balance between
industry and your institution, and these true partnerships promise
to yield positive results for faculty, students, industry, and government
John G. Gilligan is professor of nuclear engineering,
vice chancellor of research and graduate studies at North Carolina
State University, and vice chair of the ASEE Engineering Research
Council board of directors.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.