Andreas Savakis, Ph.D. – ACE Fellow 2011-12, Professor of Computer Engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology
As American Council on Education Fellow during 2011-12, I spent fall semester at the University of Rochester working with Provost Ralph Kuncl as my primary mentor. My project explored Technology Transfer as a means of getting university research into the economy to both benefit society and create value through economic development. I have been involved with Technology Transfer in various occasions, as a graduate student, researcher, faculty member and PI on sponsored grants. More recently, as the nation strives to overcome the economic downturn, I became more interested in the role that universities can play in economic growth and decided to study the Tech Transfer process. The topic turned out to be richer than I anticipated, as it draws from a number of areas including science and technology, business and entrepreneurship, law and public policy. I really enjoyed the experience and would like to share some of my thoughts here.
The Research University’s Third Mission. Given the primary mission of universities as institutions where knowledge is created and disseminated, the question naturally arises: What role can universities play in a knowledge economy? Knowledge transfer takes place in many ways, formal or informal, that range from the hiring of well-educated graduates to publications and licensing. Beyond knowledge transfer, universities contribute to the life of their communities by the number of people they hire, the amount of construction that they do, and the number of services that are needed for their students and employees. An increasing number of universities, both public and private, are starting to view their role as extending beyond the traditional missions of teaching and research to include community outreach and public service through economic development and civic engagement. Rochester is often cited as an example of a city that is surviving the downsizing of its manufacturing base due to its knowledge base, higher education institutions and potential for entrepreneurship.
Surprises about Tech Transfer. During the past decade, the number of University Technology Transfer Offices has dramatically increased and now just about every university that conducts research has a Technology Transfer office or at a minimum allocates some resources dedicated to patents and licensing. What is surprising is that the focus of technology transfer has shifted from the sole purpose of generating revenue to the broader goal of getting the technology out to the market and making use of it for the broader good. Another surprise was that majority of the revenue generated by licenses is based on a small number of big hits, which makes it extremely important to capture these ideas and bring them to market. This is quite a challenge, because big hits are near impossible to predict at the early stages of research. One approach to capturing ideas that have potential to become big hits is to create an environment that fosters and supports innovation, the Innovation Ecosystem.
Supporting the Innovation Ecosystem. Great discoveries start with great ideas and the first step in supporting the innovation pipeline is to harvest as many great ideas as possible. Once the Innovation Ecosystem flourishes, great ideas are translated to patents, licenses and startups, and revenue follows. However, it takes patience and commitment on the part of the institution, as it may take a long time to realize the revenue gains expected. An established Tech Transfer Office can provide guidance and facilitate the movement of faculty research through the processes of patenting, marketing and licensing. In addition, the tech transfer office staff can educate and advise faculty and students that have the potential to get involved in patents and startups.
Research is often conducted under a grant that focuses on the initial stages of discovery. When the project is completed, the research may be promising but not ready for commercialization. There is a trend for universities to establish gap funds, also called maturation funds or technology development funds, which help bring research to the proof of concept stage.
Mechanisms to foster university startups include incubators, business plan competitions and entrepreneurs in residence. Once a startup is formed, it needs some initial capital until more significant Venture Capital funding is obtained. These pre-VC funds are typically championed by local or regional initiatives that involve universities, industry and government. Their objective is to contribute to the long term success of startups, which in turn grow the local and regional economies.
University-led initiatives are spreading in many areas of the US, from Silicon Valley and Boston, to San Diego, the North Carolina Research Triangle, Pittsburgh, Utah, Michigan, Texas and New York among many others.
Technology Transfer benefits for Faculty: While it is generally accepted that university research can be a catalyst for economic growth, it is often unclear what it means for faculty to participate in the Technology Transfer process. When it comes to tenure and promotion, patents, licenses and startups are not a substitute for core research activities, such as publishing, presenting at major conferences, supervising graduate students and establishing a funded research program.
Tech transfer can complement and enhance the academic experience of faculty and their students. It offers another outlet for their creativity and innovative ideas. Additionally, when faculty become more engaged, a number of opportunities begin to emerge: faculty become more attuned to open problems that are relevant to the needs of the market and generate more innovative ideas; they are more likely to collaborate with other researchers and form productive partnerships; they get in touch with industries interested in their work and promote their ideas more effectively, which increases the likelihood of licensing and revenue; they find joy and fulfillment when their research is used by others; and they can imagine a world that is made better by research. And in Einstein’s words: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
I would like to thank the University of Rochester for graciously hosting me during fall semester 2011-12, the Rochester Institute of Technology for nominating me for the ACE Fellows Program, and the following Technology Transfer Offices that offered invaluable insights through conversations on Tech Transfer: Boston Univ., Carnegie Mellon, Case Western, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Vanderbilt, Emory, Northwestern, North Carolina State, Rice, Stanford, Univ. Michigan Univ. Rochester, Univ. Utah, Univ. California San Diego, Univ. Southern California.