Technology’s path from academia to commercial world needs paving

To maximise potential of new products, technology transfer offices focus on intellectual, financialand other elements. The experience of Ireland is very similar to the States

Tough climb: at the University of Texas, Austin the focus is very much on the protection of intellectual property generated at the university and on trying to commercialise it in a multitude of ways. Going to court to protect ownership of IP is a natural part of that process

Overcoming red tape. Low returns on state investment. Conflicts of interest between industry and academia. Sound familiar?

Approximately 5 per cent of university-generated technologies in the US get licensed. Public universities are under pressure to improve this figure. But this poses its own problem: a crisis of identity. Just how commercially driven should any university be?

At the recent SXSW Eco Conference, held in Austin Texas, a "Startup Bootcamp" on technology commercialisation was held. One of the speakers, Dan Sharp, is the associate vice president for research at the Office of Technology Commercialisation at the University of Texas, Austin (UT). A "veteran intellectual property and technology lawyer", Sharp was recruited by UT in part because of his strong legal background.

“Because we deal with so much IP [intellectual property], a lot of what we do is legal,” he says. “Here at UT, we haven’t been involved in too many clinical trials but anytime something is successful in the US, particularly when it comes to drug compounds, you can be sure at some point you’ll be going to court.”


A litigious culture

Sharp is referring specifically to the prominence of Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA) litigation. This relates to applications for generic drug approvals for existing licensed medications. “Going to court is a natural part of the process,” he says.

“There is a lot of red tape, rules and regulations, when you’re trying to commercialise research from a public university,” he stresses.

“We are in essence a government agency. So we need to be very careful that all the potential conflicts of interest have been addressed.”

This raises questions for any technology transfer office (TTO). “At UT we focus on the protection of IP generated at the university and try and commercialise it in a multitude of ways. So it’s good to have someone like my self here with a legal background.

“If we were an incubator, then a former entrepreneur or VC should probably be in charge. It’s important to figure out what is it you want your TTO to be. We at UT have had to ask ourselves a lot of difficult questions in recent years, try a lot of different models, and just feel our way through.”

Back to basics

A lot of “blue skies” energy research in the US gets funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (Arpa-E). Established in 2007, Arpa-E was modelled on the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) in the US department of defence – credited with innovations such as GPS, the stealth fighter and computer networking.

Darpa’s research interests always have some strategic or defensive aspect to them, while Arpa-E invests in disruptive future energy technologies. What both have in common though is their willingness to support research with very little commercial potential, at least in the short to medium term.

"I have had two companies, both of which are start-ups spun out from Texas A&M University, and both have been funded by Arpe-E," explains Jason Ornstein from JM Ornstein, which commercialises emerging cleantech initiatives.

“Arpe-E are not afraid to fund high-risk energy opportunities in technology. Plus they’re very aggressive with commercialisation and work closely with primary investigators (PIs) to seek out commercial opportunities.”

This willingness to fund high-risk research is one major cultural difference between the US and Ireland’s approach to technology commercialisation. “We predominantly focus our funding on basic research,” says Sharp. “If we were too concerned about a return on our investment, we would close the doors to most of the departments on campus.

"That's what makes the universities different from Google or Apple who, for every dollar they spend on research, must guarantee a certain return for their shareholders."

Sharp has tried to instil a certain philosophy at UT since his appointment last year. “Our philosophy is: if there’s something the private industry should do, let them do it. But there are certain things they cannot do, like invest in basic research. So the universities should do it. The current government isn’t particularly efficient – nor is any for that matter – so asking them to replace the commercial development in the private sector is something I’m not comfortable with.”

Industry and academia

Industry/academia collaboration is still a major part of any US TTO’s remit. So the challenges each face would be very familiar closer to home.

Ornstein has worked with TTOs across the US, UK, Europe and Asia. "No matter where you are, the business/academic divide has its ups and downs," he says.

“Some of the European TTOs can be a bit more challenging, and try to limit the scope in which you can apply the tech, whether that’s geography or field of use.

“But for me it’s clear that overall TTOs are looking to see more royalties, driven by government pressure.”

The realisation of timelines is another big gripe between industry and academia in Ireland.

Well guess what? It’s no different in the US. “We have put structures in place that make us more responsive but, generally speaking, I do hear complaints from industry around response times,” says Sharp.

“In many cases, industry accuse academia of being too inflexible. But I don’t believe the issue is an unwillingness to bend. It’s not having the people in place who are experienced enough to look at legal documents, negotiate contracts etc – that is the real problem.

“Universities may not have the respect of the private sector, but there is no point getting upset about it,” he adds.

“We can tell them we’re competent and flexible all day long but they have to see it for themselves. You do that by making things as simple and efficient as possible. Most of the time, the private sector is ‘technology agnostic’ so if they’re not happy with how you do business they’ll just go somewhere else.”