Balance between what industry wants and what academia delivers
Technology transfer offices face challenges around priorities, timelines and intellectual property
Irish universities and institutes of technology (ITs) are upping their game in the race to commercialise research. The job of straddling academia and industry lies with the technology transfer office of each higher education institution. This arm is becoming more active in terms of courting commercial interests into the halls of these institutions – not always an easy task.
The transfer office fulfils several roles. If a university or IT is producing good research – with potential for commercialisation – they must bring out the academic inventor’s entrepreneurial spirit while simultaneously seeking out appropriate industrial partnerships. On the flipside, industry representatives and entrepreneurs frequently go to transfer offices looking for solutions, often in areas where there might be a technology deficit.
It sounds straightforward, but priorities, timelines and the level of understanding of intellectual property (IP) rights differ considerably between various parties.
Tom Flanagan is the director of Hothouse, Dublin Institute of Technology’s centre for technology transfers. He was also recently appointed chairman of the Irish Technology Transfer and Innovation Group, the national association of technology transfer and incubation professionals.
“The group has been around for the past six years,” he says. “We’ve been getting TT directors together to try and understand what the common challenges are.”
“Managing people’s expectations around IP is a big issue,” Flanagan says. “People come in two varieties: some think everything should be free and that they should be entitled to exclusive rights for IP. Others come in and are very nervous about the process of IP rights negotiation.
“IP is intangible. When you see an invention, you might think you could have invented it yourself and therefore be reluctant to pay for it. Nevertheless it could be worth a lot to a business, so it’s only right that the inventor gets something out of it. Once there’s transparency on all sides – in terms of expectations – there is usually no problem. If you’re very clear about where the ownership lies from the start, there can be no confusion.”
Transparency doesn’t resolve all potential conflicts between industry and academia. “There can occasionally be a lack of understanding among entrepreneurs as to how IP sharing works,” says James O’Sullivan, technology transfer manager at Waterford Institute of Technology.
“Some of the younger entrepreneurs who come to us won’t have enough money to get the project off the ground. But even though they may be in search of funding and/or expertise, there is a gap in their understanding of the role of the academic institution’s IP protocols.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to convince them that WIT isn’t trying to ‘steal’ their idea, but if we’re potentially funding 100 per cent of the investment, they must understand we’re entitled to take a portion of the IP. It is, after all, the public’s taxes that are paying for it.”
Expectations about priorities can also be at odds. “The industries who surround us come with specific problems that need to be addressed,” says O’Sullivan. “You could say that what we do isn’t necessarily research, per se, but problem solving, which leads to innovation and subsequent developments of new campus companies. It’s very important to have market pull for academic research.”
However, this approach can give rise to conflict. “There can be disagreement between what academics want to do – ie publish their research – versus industry’s desire to maintain IP confidentiality.”
Managing expectations about timeframes is also part of the technology transfer office’s remit.
“Industry and academia are structured very differently,” says O’Sullivan. “Research organisations like WIT have academics who might be working on three- to five-year timelines. Industry want solutions tomorrow.”
This issue can, to a certain extent, be overcome if researchers are on contract. “We have 200 dedicated research staff being paid through funds like Horizon 2020 and Enterprise Ireland Innovation Vouchers, as well as a huge number of staff doing developmental work for research companies,” says O’Sullivan.
“With the tenured academics, they don’t necessarily need to do commercialised research. So it’s good to have the contract researchers, who don’t have security of tenure. It makes them hungrier to do the work.”
Not all academics want to go down the commercial route, despite the potential financial gains. “My goal is to convince our academics to work with industry as a validation of their research, “ O’Sullivan says. “If they reckon their stuff is so good, why aren’t industry partners working with them?”
A large number of challenges remain for technology transfer offices, but Ireland has come a long way, says Dr James Cunningham, director of the Whitaker Institute NUI Galway and co-author of Effective Technology Transfer Offices – A Practitioner Framework (2014).
“Since the establishment of the Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative [first introduced by Enterprise Ireland in 2007] significant progress has been made in establishing and building TTOs within the Irish Third Level system.
“The collective performance of Irish TTOs is impressive in such a short period of time when you consider that US universities created TTOs in the 1980s,” he says.
“One of the challenges I see now is how do we build, sustain and further grow on existing TTO expertise and capabilities that have been developed over the past decade? “I would argue we need to broaden the current hard metrics for TTOs to include soft metrics. To deliver on soft metrics – such as licenses, spinouts, material transfer agreements – will require significant organisational change. It will require, for example, organisational support, effective networking skills, timely market-intelligence insights and high levels of trust.”
Trinity College, Dublin, recently decided to overhaul its approach to technology transfers, with an even greater emphasis on industry partnership planned.
“We’re setting up an Office of Corporate Partnership and Knowledge Exchange,” says Dr Diarmuid O’Brien, director of Trinity Research and Innovation.
“We want to develop a more sophisticated relationship with industry where they are considered a partner rather than a customer of the university.”