Let’s face it, the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) has an exceedingly difficult and complex job to do. And if not executed to perfection, while faced with so many variables beyond control of the Office, heads may easily and frequently roll.
How can we possibly improve TTO performance?
And, why should we even care to?
At its essence, the TTO mission is to jailbreak innovation in order to improve the human condition.
Clearly the Office has set a lofty aspiration bar, and why shouldn’t it? Shoot for the stars and land on the moon my madre would always say. Many of us have learned the oft-painful lesson that a worthwhile endeavor is rarely ever easy to achieve. Those of us blessed of sound mind and body and business acumen (yes all three elements are requisite) have a responsibility to serve as adjuvants (how’s that for integrating some immunology into the discourse) via this extraordinary opportunity – to make the world a better place – for those who cannot…
Historically TTO success metrics have been tethered to benchmarks such as Y/O/Y growth in numbers of invention disclosures, patents applied and issued, and licenses/options granted. Technology transfer, just as any other business, is fundamentally determined a success or failure, not so surprisingly, by focusing upon the top-line revenue performance. This is a no brainer, right? You don’t need to be a Harvard MBA to know a business can only endure for so long if operating at a loss. Well, according to a recent Brookings study, it is estimated that most universities do not generate enough licensing and royalty income to cover the wages of their TTO staff and the legal costs for the patents they file – and that over the last twenty years approximately 87% of TTOs fail to achieve break-even, staggeringly disappointing numbers indeed. Thankfully most of these offices are able to rely upon support from the broader university, as only a very small minority of TTOs are capable of self-support.
Success of the TTO has much broader and profound implications than simply a monetary return – though there are many examples of such blockbuster earnings, here are just a few in an effort to grab your attention:
It may sound pedestrian, but at its core the key to improving the human condition is via the creation of a translational culture within the hallowed halls of the research University, one that nurtures and grows innovation and where entrepreneurial thinking is fundamental – and the key performance indicator is simply … the spinout startup new company. Companies that spinout of university are disproportionately high performing, where ~8% IPO, which is ~>2X the rate of US enterprises (Litan, et. al. 2007).
We must encourage and cultivate a logarithmic acceleration in growth of the number of spinouts from the research University. As it is the spinout company that enables a nascent technology to have the best chance for achieving a commercialized product that may function to treat or cure disease, pinpoint new energy sources and stabilize existing resources, address climate change challenges, revolutionize travel, transform communication, tackle poverty, improve agricultural yields, end hunger and provide access to sufficient clean and safe drinking water to all, to name a few.
It is easy to wax poetic about what needs to be done, often less easy to illuminate how to do it. Here is my effort to suggest and willingness to work towards seeing a hastening of such an increase in spinout creation:
In an environment where the TTO is commonly under-resourced and over-burdened it is a near impossible ask for just a handful of office associates to suss data outputs from hundreds if not thousands of faculty, post-docs and graduate students and then quickly make an assessment of its downstream commercial potential. An intermediary catalyst is required to supplement the office work to identify *more* opportunity.
We should embed Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs) at the department level, whereby intimate relationships may be formed, beyond only faculty but to also include research associates, post-docs and graduate students.
Sidebar interesting point to note: in Norse mythology, Eir, which translates as “help” or “mercy” is a goddess associated with a medical skill.
In our example the EIR, not Eir, should be unleashed within a defined neighborhood amongst the broader University, enabling deployment of focused expertise, and one where deep understanding of potential embryonic technologies may be leveraged. Ideally the EIR should bring to bear demonstrated acumen in the departmental discipline, a history of success in the early-stage environment, an ability to manage and team build, as well as a rolodex full of public and private capital sources. These arrows in the EIR’s quiver paired with the shared passion to improve the human condition should combine to require no more than a favorable equity position in said potential spinout or spinouts as incentive-based compensation. Surely this is the characterization of a rare individual, but I know they are out there because I have met them, time and time again. The TTO does not require a line item in the budget, the EIR is focused on her mission to create a company, and the inventor receives the attention and industry-based partnership that often does not arrive in the lab until much later when precious resources may have been exhausted on purely academic experiments rather than on those that are translational in design.
Certainly as many interdisciplinary efforts are stood up, where the departmental lines are blurred – akin to for example what the University of Colorado is doing with their BioFrontiers Institute, lead by former HHMI President and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Cech, Ph.D., bringing together researchers from the life sciences, computer science and engineering to uncover new knowledge – there can easily be an EIR inserted to collaborate within the boundary lines established by such innovative units.
What we need to achieve is a Henry Ford-like mass production approach to the amplification of University spinouts. Here experts in narrowly scoped tasks staffed the continuous flow assembly line. I suggest there are similar efficiencies to be harvested via embedding Entrepreneurs In Residence at the department level, rather than by unleashing one to the entire university.
> So, if you are a potential EIR please contact me as I would be overjoyed to connect you with an interested TTO.
> And, If you are a potentially interested TTO please contact me as I would be overjoyed to connect you with a talented and eager EIR in waiting.
And finally, I would be remiss if I were to overlook highlighting Covalent Data, an Innovation Intelligence platform, specifically designed to accelerate the opportunity identification process for TTO, researcher, industry, foundation and grant agency. Yes, there is no doubt about this not-so-subtle plug, but hey, this is my blog and Covalent Data is a transformative resource that you should know about.