Three lessons about tech transfer - insights from IGL2018

By Laurie Smith on Wednesday, 29 August 2018.

Technology transfer offices have come a long way since their inception in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s. Now they form part of a much broader and more structured system of knowledge and people exchange between universities and the wider world of which immediate financial return and intellectual property are only two components. With the proposals from Research England’s technical group on the UK’s knowledge exchange framework imminent, now seems like a good moment to think about innovative approaches to technology transfer. This topic was tackled during a session at Nesta’s Innovation Growth Lab Global Conference, IGL2018, that involved Sam Liss and Gary Gray from Harvard​, Lesley Millar-Nicholson from MIT, and Christy Wyskiel from John Hopkins. Three lessons that emerged from discussion were:

1. It’s not about the money until it’s about the money

For the panellists the wider impact of technology transfer takes precedence over income immediately derived from this source. Benefits are often indirect as patents can seed other patents, can lead to start ups or can build the careers of future alumni who might be useful contacts in the future. Experience shows that betting on the jockey (researcher) can offer better rewards than betting on the technology. Larger companies in particular are often more interested in engaging with faculty and students than licensing intellectual property (IP). What is more, returns from IP are not always steady and sometimes come later: one example cited concerned a portfolio of patents around high definition TV where most of the revenue came from one five year period. However, despite the importance of advancing the strategic interests of universities and the wider potential impacts of technology transfer, the speakers were clear that the legitimacy of tech transfer offices would be undermined if revenues were neglected.

2. Going beyond the usual suspects

Too often technology transfer offices only engage with the usual suspects - as demonstrated by the IP disclosures of many universities coming from a small number of faculty. Harvard Office of Technology Development are actively engaging with new junior faculty to counter this tendency. Following the success of dorm room companies like Facebook, students are also becoming increasingly interested in entrepreneurship and post docs are looking for mentors to help them with start ups as well as research. These trends are being facilitated by initiatives such as the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, which provides the expertise, support, and connections for MIT students to become effective entrepreneurs, and John Hopkins Technology Ventures’ Mentors in Residence Programme.

3. Silicon Valley is not the same as Springfield

The experience of technology transfer offices at, say, Ivy League universities based in major technology clusters can be very different from institutions located elsewhere. Despite having lots to offer, less famous institutions often have to chase opportunities while well known universities like MIT have investors and collaborators beating down the door. Conversely global universities can be expected to engage with local businesses when international companies might be more suitable partners.

Strong institutions located in places perceived to be in the economic doldrums, such as John Hopkins in Baltimore, often have to spend as much effort championing their regions as themselves, sometimes due to inaccurate or out-of-date assumptions about their hometown. Elsewhere institutions have to build innovation ecosystems from scratch in their locality in contrast to more mature clusters such as Boston or Silicon Valley. Expectations of returns from technology transfer are sometimes not adjusted for different universities - so there is disappointment when Colorado Springs does not immediately produce the same outcomes as Caltech.

Nesta is now thinking about innovative approaches to technology transfer through many strands of its work including an horizon scan on innovation brokerage and the Innovation Growth Lab. If you have any insights on this topic that you want to share then contact: