Free Agency: A breakthrough idea?

By Arundeep Pradhan posted 02-22-2010 14:53


Jobs. Companies. Innovation. If you have picked up a newspaper or watched the news lately, you know these are hot topics. In these difficult, but recovering, economic times, new ideas that would spur innovation and therefore increase jobs are proposed in a number of forums. One such idea, from the Kauffman Foundation, has received a lot of attention. You may have seen it in Harvard Business Review’s Breakthrough Ideas for 2010. But well before that article appeared, a separate, more detailed communication was provided by the Kauffman Foundation to the higher echelons of the Department of Commerce.

The ideas proposed in the article have generated considerable dialog and commentary. There seems to be some misunderstanding of AUTM’s position on this issue. Let me lay out our position for the record.

To be clear, AUTM encourages open discussion from a broad range of scholars, practitioners, policy makers and any interested stakeholders about how research commercialization can be advanced. In a recent letter to the Department of Commerce, we provided a critique of the Kauffman proposal and asked to engage in a constructive dialogue about how the technology transfer process can be enhanced. To that end, I will participate in a forum on research commercialization hosted by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on February 24, along with individuals representing universities, industry, investors, and of course the Kauffman Foundation. 

I spent the past week in Washington, D.C. and met with congressional staffers, representatives from Commerce, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, American Council on Education, Council on Governmental Relations, National Institutes on Standards and Technology and others. The conversations covered the Kauffman proposal and the role of government, universities and industry in enhancing university research commercialization. The Department of Commerce has solicited many ideas, has assured us that they are open for continued discussion and input from stakeholders, and is not endorsing any particular course of action at this time. This process is just beginning and I am sure that AUTM will play a continued and significant role.

I also attended the meeting of the Council on Governmental Relations, where Lesa Mitchell and John Tyler of the Kauffman Foundation participated in a panel titled, “Who Should Manage Faculty Inventions: The Kauffman Foundation Free Choice Proposal.” In that discussion, Mitchell and Tyler did a 180-degree turn. Rather than advocate for faculty ownership and control of inventions, as stated in their letter to the Department of Commerce, they pivoted to a less controversial position – the exploration of alternate means of commercializing non-patentable technologies. It certainly was a different perspective on their written communications. Given their facile approach I look forward to further clarification from the Kauffman Foundation.

As a final comment on the Kauffman Foundation, their representatives have been invited to, attended and spoken at a number of AUTM annual meetings. They have also been invited guests at an AUTM Board meeting. AUTM board members have met at Kauffman headquarters and they hosted a new metrics kick-off meeting for AUTM in 2006. I think it’s fair to say we have tried to provide many opportunities for interaction and dialog.

Let me assure you AUTM has been at the forefront of this issue since late last year, before it surfaced in HBR. In addition to the critique that we provided to the Department of Commerce, we also prepared an op ed piece. This was initially submitted to the Wall Street Journal in early January, but as of Friday, February 19, it has been published online in Business Week. Because of delays in the editorial submission and acceptance process we were delayed in communicating with membership.

In the spirit of open discussion, there will be a debate on inventors’ role in licensing at the 2010 Annual Meeting. All annual meeting attendees are welcome to attend the debate and members will have an opportunity to submit questions for both sides via Twitter.

Our position on the Bayh-Dole Act remains the same. It is a beautifully simple act that does exactly what was intended—get federally funded research developed and into the hands of the tax-paying public. If there is an argument to be made about the efficiencies of technology transfer then let’s deal with that directly and leave Bayh-Dole alone. The evidence from over a decade’s worth of metrics proves the Bayh-Dole Act is working.

Technology transfer has already evolved to encompass more than licensing. Offices across the country are engaged in business development, industry partnerships, gap funding, economic development and entrepreneurship education. All of these activities boost a university’s ability to transfer the fruits of their research, including enhancing licensing and patenting, and the more traditional mechanism of publishing and teaching. We recognize that universities need to be proactive in commercialization. We seek constantly to refine our models, taking into account the local innovation ecosystem and the resources that are available.

There is always room for improvement.

What other ideas are out there that would enhance commercialization of university research, university-industry partnerships, allow for more effective startup company formation, and demonstrate the impact of universities on the U.S. economy? Please share your unique models by responding to this blog so that AUTM can begin illustrating the role of academic technology transfer in the innovation ecosystem.

On a related note, look for an announcement at the Annual Meeting about the Bayh-Dole Act and how AUTM will celebrate 30 years of innovation.

1 comment


02-26-2010 18:39

I come from the economic development world and have been engaged with local University TTOs and attended the last three AUTM annual conferences. I would not pretend to be an expert in tech transfer, which has a significant element of art vs. science in the commercialization process. What I'd like to offer is the conundrum I see in taking pure research, or highly targeted research and trying to find a commercial problem for it to solve as opposed to the approach of identifying a significant problem or need and applying the best research minds to create solutions that are in demand in the marketplace. Given that the historic role of universities is first and foremost education, this is not surprising and should be expected. The question is for those of us in the community is how can universities become the economic engines we need in a globally competitive economy? My observation is that TTOs are very good at some things, but knowledge of the white space in markets is not one of the core competencies, hence the problem. Perhaps more collaboration between TTOs and business schools would help and I am certain this is happening. I am suggesting that if universities knew more about market pull and were free to apply their intellectual talent, we would see a greater output of the creation of viable commercial entities (companies), which in turn would create new jobs and revenue for communities. None of what I have said is brain surgery, however I thought it worth mentioning.
jeff lebow