Prism Magazine - March 2003
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Scaling the Ranks

Research - Growing Technology

- By John Gilligan  

An entrepreneurial spirit is soaring on campus to almost everyone's benefit.

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 process. 

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 agencies.

 

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 jgilligan@asee.org.


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