Measuring the Success of Technology Transfer Offices (and the field) – Guest Blog Post – Mike Mireles

There is a glaring critique of the university technology transfer enterprise and perhaps the underlying Bayh-Dole Act in the United States.  That critique is based upon the fact that many university technology transfer offices fail to bring in enough funding through licensing or other activities to cover their own costs let alone make money for the university.  Indeed, only a handful of U.S. universities appear to make substantial amounts of revenue.  An additional criticism of the university technology transfer field generally has been that technology transfer offices (and really, the administrators above them) have been too focused on using revenue generated as a metric for success.  This focus arguably can distort the universities’ general mission directed to the public good, including skewing the incentives for academics.  For example, academics can be pushed to adopt research agendas focused on solving practical problems instead of engaging in basic science, which may ultimately have broader public benefits.  At the confluence of these two critiques is the issue of what should be the proper metric(s)for judging success for the technology transfer office and the field in general.  For sure, U.S. universities are feeling the “pinch” of less government monies for research and are looking for alternative funding sources, such as crowdfunding for academic research.  However, even with that pressure, adminstrators and faculty should judge the success of their technology transfer office based on criteria that flow from the mission of the university and that are aligned with its objectives.  So, when is it a success or not?  What are the right metrics?

Valerie Landrio McDevitt, Joelle Mendez-Hinds, David Winwood, Vinit Nijhawan,Todd Sherer, John F. Ritter, and Paul R. Sanberg, have authored a paper titled, “More than Money: The Exponential Impact of Academic Technology Transfer.”  The paper sets forth the benefits of technology transfer beyond revenue alone and perhaps provides the starting point for the development of additional metrics to judge the success of technology transfer offices.  Here are the benefits described by the authors:

Revenue generation

  • Unrestricted funds to institution from license income
  • Direct personal financial benefit to inventors and authors

Increased opportunities for funding

  • Eligibility for funding by compliance with federal regulations requiring a technology transfer program
  • Increased opportunities for interinstitutional and interdisciplinary grants
  • Outreach, licensing, and facilitation of new startups yield new funding partnerships
  • Increased opportunities for funding sources requiring a commercial partner, for example, SBIR and STTR

Facilitates establishment of international research relationships

  • Promotes a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation
  • Successes increase university brand and prestige
  • Enhances university fundraising efforts
  • Opportunities to strengthen donor ties by engagement with startups
  • Positively factors into high level recruitment efforts
  • Positively affects retention of high-producing and high-potential faculty

Student success

  • Provides opportunities to participate in real world translational research
  • Provides exposure to the process of obtaining intellectual property protection
  • Strengthens prospects of finding jobs and being successful

Public benefit

  • Fulfills the university’s larger missions to address social, medical, environmental, or technical problems
  • Improves the quality of life

Economic development

  • Revenue from university licensing positively affects the US economy
  • Brings money into the state or region
  • Aids in the retention of local talent
  • New university startups create high-wage jobs

It may be difficult to measure some of these “benefits.”  But, what do you think of some of these as potential metrics?  For sure, some of the most beneficial programs often bring to the table attributes that are difficult to measure.  And, surely, metrics such as revenue generation, invention disclosures, patents granted, patents applied for, patents licensed, number of start-ups and other traditional metrics still have some place in the game.  (Hat tip to Technology Transfer Tactics for a lead to the paper.)


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