Technology transfer is the process of transferring scientific findings from one organisation to another for the purpose of further development and commercialisation.
The process typically includes:
– Identifying new technologies
– Protecting technologies through patents and copyrights
– Forming development and commercialisation strategies such as marketing and licensing to existing private sector companies or creating new startup companies based on the technology.
Academic and research institutions engage in technology transfer for a variety of reasons, such as:
– Recognition for discoveries made at the institution
– Compliance with regulations
– Attraction and retention of talented faculty
– Local economic development
– Attraction of corporate research support
– Licensing revenue to support further research and education
The ultimate benefits of technology transfer, however, are the public benefits derived from the products that reach the market and the jobs that result from the development and sale of products. The patenting by academic institutions of discoveries resulting from research protects the investment made in research and ensures that these discoveries have the opportunity to reach the stream of commerce. Investments in intellectual property are returned to the public through products that benefit the public, increased employment, and taxes. Commercialisation can be pursued without disrupting the core values of publication and sharing of information, research results, materials and know-how. As the transition from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy continues, the role of university intellectual property will play an increasingly important part. Many countries are developing programs to enhance economic development through technology transfer from local research universities. This growing emphasis on economic development will undoubtedly lead to more complicated relationships, interactions and expectations for academic institutions.
Sometimes, though, university discoveries require extensive development before products and services can be made available to the public. Universities can’t do this alone. In one of the major advances of the 20th century, researchers at Stanford and UC San Francisco learned to clone genes in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1982 that the first new drug based on this discovery – human insulin – was approved for human use. Turning the research discovery into a useful product required significant investment and further development by a private company partner, Genentech. Because companies invested in developing this university discovery, today literally hundreds of new health care products are in use, and a new industry – biotechnology – adds tremendous value to the world’s economy. Technology transfer is the tool that helped translate a basic research discovery into products that have improved human health, and shaped our world.
The main motivation for a university to transfer technology is an extension of its basic mission – to teach, to generate and share new knowledge, and to be of service to society. And sometimes technology transfer generates significant income for the company partner and the university. With increasing success, and the occasional blockbuster product based on an academic discovery, reliance on university technology transfer efforts has grown.
Regionally, universities are seen as a source of innovations for local companies to create new products and local jobs. University officials see technology transfer activities as a potential source of revenue to support university programs, and an opportunity for professional development for faculty keen to see their research benefit the public.
Everyone, it seems, has an idea of what technology transfer can do for them. In this environment, the people who manage the university innovations play a crucial role and are relied upon by universities, companies, investors and economic development officials to identify and manage new discoveries in the best interest of the public.
Their role includes:
• Preserving intellectual property rights
• Facilitating partnerships with companies and other partners in support of further research or product development
• Protecting the academic research enterprise – the source of future innovations
Their work is very labor intensive, requiring a high skill level and strong service orientation to understand and juggle the needs of the researcher, the university, company and community partners, and the public that supports the research and stands to benefit from its commercialisation. Few universities have independent funds to support their technology transfer programs, and many programs must be self-supporting. Even so, most of the funds generated through technology transfer go for further research and education, and are shared with researchers who often use them for additional research. But the motivation for most people in technology transfer is not the money it can generate. The real value is about impact.
In the summer of 2006, specialists from a dozen leading research institutions came together to consider the role of technology transfer in today’s university. Recognising that, “universities share certain core values that can and should be maintained to the fullest extent possible in all technology transfer agreements,” they discussed their shared perspectives on the profession and developed “Nine Points to Consider in Licensing University Technology.”
Among the values supported are scientific freedom, broad access to research tools, conflicts of interest, and unmet societal needs. The role of technology transfer will be critical for universities for the foreseeable future. New ideas and technology from university research helped to create the world we live in today, and will continue to shape the world of tomorrow. By maintaining the core values of the university while working with the private and public sectors to enable development of products, those of us in the technology transfer profession help change the world.
The primary objective of academic technology transfer professionals is to enable the development and commercialisation of academic research findings, ensuring research ultimately reaches and benefits the public. Many benefits – such as educational advancements for students and contributions to the academic research enterprise – are not immediately visible in the media or the marketplace.
We invite you to learn more about products and some of the exciting stories behind successful technology transfer efforts.