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26 September 2017

Changing of the guard

Lou Berneman, Osage University Partners, celebrates the end of an era in academic technology transfer.

Author: Lou Berneman, founding partner at Osage University Partners

As many academic institutions begin a new fiscal year, let us take a moment to celebrate the end of an era in academic technology transfer. The long and distinguished careers of tech transfer luminaries have come to an end as they retire or transition to less demanding positions.

In the past year or so, individuals who personified professionalism and influenced tech transfer to become a career have or soon will move on, including David Day (University of Florida), Kathleen Denis (Rockefeller University), Carl Gulbrandsen (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation), Tom Hockaday (University of Oxford), Katharine Ku (Stanford University), Lita Nelsen (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Ken Nisbet (University of Michigan).

The enactment of the Bayh-Dole Act, the US legislation that deals with intellectual property (IP) arising from federal government-funded research, and the emergence of many technology transfer offices in the 1980s and 1990s led to the institutionalisation of tech transfer and IP policies and practices that have served us well:

  • Facilitating commercialisation for the public good.
  • Rewarding, recruiting and retaining faculty and students.
  • Inducing closer ties to industry and investors.
  • Promoting economic growth.
  • Generating licensing income to advance education and research initiatives.

To be sure, some institutions have been more successful than others in achieving each of these goals. The game-winning formula for tech transfer success has now been codified:

  • Outstanding research faculty.
  • Support and encouragement from senior administration.
  • Long-term stable and excellent technology transfer leadership.
  • Program effectiveness, patience, and persistence.
  • A generous portion of luck.

As in most endeavours, make no mistake, luck is a crucial ingredient to tech transfer success.

But, the times they are a-changing. When I started in technology transfer in 1989, few university presidents, provosts, executive vice-presidents and vice-presidents for research knew the word entrepreneurism. Today, TTOs face pressures from multiple sources to advance the innovation ecosystem and promote entrepreneurism:

  • From administrators who have seen the light – voluntarily or otherwise.
  • From faculty who want to see real world impact of their research and have concluded that entrepreneurial initiatives are the preferred commercialisation vehicle.
  • From students who want to create – not find – their post-graduation job.
  • From economic development and other government officials who have realised and convinced others that science and technology are the basis for job growth, community prosperity and wealth creation.


Organisational structures, policies, practices and personnel will need to change, transitioning from a traditional TTO – licensing to established companies, establishing collaborations with big industry partners and facilitating faculty consulting – to identifying, derisking, creating, incubating, accelerating and financing new ventures.

Stakeholders from all directions are encouraging TTO leaders to do more and tech transfer professionals have responded. TTO policies, practices, organisations and personnel are adapting to address a changing far more entrepreneurial landscape. In 2000, US academic institutions reported the creation of 388 startups. By 2015, that number had risen to 1,012, according to professional organisation the Association of University Technology Managers’ Licensing Survey for that financial year.

This trend is likely to continue accelerating. I would not be surprised to see in the near future the number of licences to startups exceed the number of licences to established companies for paradigm-shifting transformative technologies that address global needs.

TTOs have seen – and often created – the writing on the proverbial wall. TTOs are leading and supporting university entrepreneurial innovation ecosystems with a wide variety of program initiatives, including:

  • Technology accelerators and incubators (kudos to anyone who can define the difference).
  • Mentoring programs.
  • Identifying and recruiting investible CEOs.
  • Facilitating student entrepreneurship.
  • University funds for proof-of-concept (PoC) derisking and seed funding new ventures.
  • Creating advisory boards of alumni and friends to review and prioritise PoC funding proposals.
  • How to launch and finance new ventures educational programs.
  • Simplified licensing for non-funded faculty startups and non-patented software.
  • Recruiting TTO personnel with backgrounds and experience in angel investing, venture capital and company formation.

That said, criticism of TTOs from startup investors continues. First and foremost among the complaints is: why does it take so long to get a deal done? Indeed, my friend and colleague Kirsten Leute, senior vice-president of university relations at Osage University Partners, addresses this issue in the article above mine.

And, too many institutions continue to measure success in terms of numbers of startups launched. To be fair, neither the Association of University Technology Managers nor any other group has sought to define a startup in terms of requisite management or capital raised – thus, to deal with perception of productivity, the arms race to launch and report higher numbers of startups continues. Perhaps a far better productivity reporting metric is the amount of capital startups have raised. Notable institutions have distanced themselves from this rat race and instead are focusing on creating few quality startups able to attract investible management and venture financing.

Finally, kudos to the next generation of TTO leaders, many of whom have been guided by those named above. Others are new to the field. As in the past, TTO leaders come from a variety of backgrounds – scientific, legal, commercial and other. All, however, past and present, have undertaken a most challenging charge. The goals of technology transfer have remained constant – facilitate commercialisation for the public good, reward, recruit and retain faculty, induce closer ties to industry and investors, create economic growth and generate income. How we get there is as varied as the personalities who lead.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Medium

Copyright Mawsonia Limited 2010. Please don´t cut articles from or the PDF and redistribute by email or post to the web without written permission.

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