Innovation and Collaboration Are Needed to Improve the Technology Transfer Process
On February 24, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke held a forum on 'Catalyzing University Research for a Stronger Economy.' Guests included over 50 leaders from government, industry and academia, including presidents of such leading universities as Stanford, Akron, Nebraska and Kentucky. The forum focused specifically on technology, and the need for the commercialization of university research.
In his remarks, Locke emphasized the importance of technology commercialization to the American economy, declaring that 'how well America moves ideas out of the research lab and into the marketplace will determine whether we remain the most competitive and vibrant economy in the world.' He noted the central role that higher education plays in the development of new ideas and new technologies, praising the research conducted at American universities as 'second to none.' However, Locke also criticized the process of commercializing that research as neither effective nor efficient enough to serve the American economy.
Groundbreaking university research is being performed in areas like information technology, clean energy and biotechnology that should translate into growth in American industry. However, there are faulty steps in the 'innovation ecosystem' that often prevents this research from being turned into new businesses and jobs. In his remarks, Locke noted that there are frequently too few resources allocated to generating new ideas and that new ideas often fail to be pursued with focused research.
Although specific plans for improvement will take time to develop, Locke and the forum's participants did identify some areas in which solutions might be found. Funding new research is, of course, a crucial first step. Locke pointed to the recent influx of federal funds from the American Recovery Act, which allocated $100 billion to support research in many different areas, as well as the $3.7 billion increase in funding for civilian research and development in the President's 2011 budget.
Of course, funding new research won't solve the problem of turning that research into more jobs. Forum participants emphasized that they aren't looking for more research programs that will apply short-term fixes, but are instead seeking long-term solutions that could lead to new industries. Improving collaborative efforts emerged as central to this goal. Suggestions included sharing best practices so that institutions can build on each others' work and sharing resources when commercializing products through groups like regional technology transfer agencies.
The forum also called on industry to step up and take a more active role in the process. Although partnerships between business and universities tend to lead to anxiety over conflicts of interest, Luis M. Proenza, president of the University of Akron, suggested that it's time for people to update their ideas about these relationships, stating that 'there needs to be times when the synergies need to be understood and celebrated.'
The Patent Count is Up
Lee Todd Jr., president of the University of Kentucky, noted that institutions need to update the way that they measure success in commercializing research. The emphasis needs to be moved away from 'counting patents' and more toward measures of a successful industry, such as how many investments are drawn by the new ideas and how many jobs are created. Kentucky has moved toward this goal by using grant money to hire two research 'harvesters' whose job is to scrutinize university labs for ideas with commercial potential.
Nevertheless, patent counting does indicate a steady improvement in the technology transfer process. The Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) recently released their annual 'U.S. Licensing Activity Survey,' which offers hard data on university research expenditures, new patents, new companies and licensing revenue. The latest survey showed that American colleges and universities issued 2,821 patents, created 542 companies and generated $2.379 billion in licensing income in fiscal year 2008. Although the organization discourages direct comparisons due to changes in the roster of participating colleges year to year, AUTM president Arundeep S. Pradhan did acknowledge that most of the data points to 'a steady increase in the amount of technology transfer activity.'
Wednesday's forum suggests that this growth has not been sufficient to stimulate new industries and create as many new jobs as the American economy so desperately requires. Hopefully the energy indicated by this positive trend can be harnessed to successful move university research into the economic marketplace.