(article written for the University of Geneva Alumni community)
For decades, the economic development of regions has been depending on their capacity to attract and retain businesses which add value to their surroundings (the well known spill over effect). In the past, such firms were mainly composed of industries (and to some extent large financial companies) which required commanding construction sites, making them less prone to move once settled.
With the emergence of the knowledge economy, a shift has occurred. Creative people and entrepreneurs able to translate the latest developments in innovative products and services oriented companies have become the new actors considered as bringing new economic welfare. The fact that such innovative minds and skilful workers are mobile has spurred the competition between the regions to lure them. Lake Geneva and Boston are no exceptions but they compete on different levels. Boston provides access the US market and one of the highest concentration of high level academic institutions in the world. For knowledge savvy workers, an attractive proposition. The Lake Geneva area has other trumps in its sleeve: it can provide a central (and cultural neutral) access to the European market and a very high quality of life through its scenic beauty and world class infrastructure. Its research impact is among the highest in the world in terms of publication citation and technology transfer.
How does the future will look like ? Boston will undoubtedly remain a powerhouse of knowledge and worldwide attraction to the best minds but its infrastructure is lagging behind and work commuters are losing precious time stuck in traffic jam or in uncomfortable trains. The Lake Geneva region, through decades of regular investments in its infrastructure can provide an efficient public transportation system combined with a car sharing able to allow a smooth and punctual travel country wide. This will likely contribute to reinforce the attractiveness of the Swiss region and close the gap with its American cousin.
All is not well however, recent studies from the Swiss national bank points out a surge in housing pricing attributed to the growing pressure generated from immigrant workers in Lake Geneva area (http://bit.ly/5Z3hs6 ). A signal to “manage” with more acuity the immigration workers in order to make sure that general welfare of the local population is indeed improved and not worsened by such flow. Recent voting polls show a growing concern that need to be addressed to warrant a continued support for such important endeavours.
I was contacted recently by a government official of a country where they are trying to set up several TT offices which would serve large regions as hubs. I said to him I was not very keen in regional servicing TTOs and that a Swiss effort to do this failed (the Swiss network of Innovation).
Bureaucrats love this idea of funding only a handful of TT entities. It makes their life easier to get the due reporting and manage the network. It also looks good for politicians weary of spending public money in too many organizations. Companies love it too because they think having fewer seller’s of technology would provide a more efficient market.
I have to concede , I actually agree with them.
However , despite these positive aspects, one need to keep in mind that such centralization comes at the expense of an important element which is central to academic innovation: the interest and implication of the initiators of the discoveries.
By putting more emphasize on the technology over its contributors , hubs or centralized TT office will have a much more challenging time in keeping academics interested and pro-active to disclose and help develop new discoveries. If you are not MIT or Stanford, keeping academics involved actually lies often on top of the priorities.
So where does mutualization add value to the technology transfer ? Sub critical schools or Universities should turn to existing and well established technology transfer offices for help. The government could support for a few years the cost one technology transfer officer that is shared between both organizations. After that, either there is enough deal flow to have a dedicated unit (about 30 disclosures a year) or the partnership will maintain itself without governement support.
Another role for the government would be to support positions of marketing specialists that are hired within industrial clusters or trade associations and which job would be to provide support to TT officers in identifying the best contacts within such networks of companies.
Nothing politically or bureaucratically sexy but of true added value for the practitioners.
Though many economists may describe how perfect markets are the cornerstone of a healthy economy, most of the wealth creation is happening around market imperfections. You can make money in engaging into activities aimed at suppressing any imperfections in the markets(for example taking advantage of inconsistencies or deviations of traded items – an activity called arbitrage that generated a recent drive at getting information a few microseconds earlier by locating computers as close as possible to the exchange floor).
Another way to benefit from market imperfections consists in generating them, for example through patents. Patents provide a quasi monopoly to their holders to commercialize their invention.
Should we avoid contributing to such market imperfections and stop providing exclusive patented rights to firms ? Clearly not since often such incentive maybe required to allow the necessary investment be made to reach market. However sometimes another route consists in non-exclusively licensing out technologies to spur competition among firms willing to develop and bring the invention to market. Since it requires more work to be done effectively, one tends to overlook such opportunities.
Reaching out to(more) perfection may be something worth pursuing outside of theological endeavours.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting where one of the leading economists working on KTT related issues (Jerry Thursby) looked at me and wondered until which extend KTT office could be “outsourced” by Faculties. The economists (and I understand them to some extent) do not like to have TTOs act as quasi-monopolies within the Universities.
My answer at that time was that since most TTOs are not only faculty service but also University service, it is not possible for a faculty to just buy-in “TTO services” from an outside source which is not “validated” by the University. What I mean by “validated” is that the signing authority (eg VP of Research) does need to trust the negotiation job done enough to make the call to sign or not the contract.
A better question may then be , if not all, what type of activities deployed by TTOs could be outsourced ? I came up with the following list:
Core activities that need to remain within a TTO :
- Contract negotiation (licensing , collaborations)
- Faculty and Industry contacts
Activities that may be outsourced:
- Market research
- IP portfolio management (to some extent)
- Spin-out creation (eg through an incubator)
What is the best solution ? The determining factor should be service over cost and will vary from place to place. Competition is good when the outsourced services are in a profitable space. If not, one needs to be careful and avoid spending public money to duplicate monopolies.
I have been recently contacted by Katharine Ku, the head of the Office of Technology Licensing at Stanford University. Kathy has been a promoter of several initiatives grouping US Universities to define general principles (eg the Nine Points to Consider in Licensing University Technologies) applicable to our day to day operations.
The latest of these important efforts lies around the use (and misuse) of academic MTAs.
Stanford and other Universities have agreed to refer, whenever possible, to the Uniform Biological Material Transfer Agreement (UBMTA) terms, when dealing with other Universities or non for profit institutions.
A full text of the policy can be found at http://www.stanford.edu/grou/ICO/agmts/docs/mtapolicy09.pdf .
In my practice, we use simple academic to academic on page MTAs and have our researchers sign them when possible. In this regards the use of UBMTA may seem a more sophisticated (if not more complex) approach.
According to some of our American colleagues it however seems that some European Universities are becoming more picky about what terms they accept or not in their academic MTAs.
- Is the UBMTA the best shot to simplify our lifes and the one of our researchers ?
- Are there other approaches to streamline the exchange of materials between academic groups ?
- Should our institutions endorse this new policy proposal ?
What is sure is that any improvement in this matter is welcome.
We tend to believe our jobs are becoming more complex, making them more simple for us and our academics should remain one of our top priorities.