Swimming Through the Crowd: Crowdsourcing and Tech Transfer

You’ve undoubtedly seen the word crowdsourcing all over news sites and blogs for a while now. But while crowdsourcing stories from the business and artistic worlds tend to make the headlines, there are many out there working to apply crowdsourcing to tech transfer and university research.

Here’s the basic idea of crowdsourcing: take a problem or task you might normally outsource to paid employees or contractors and open it up to the public, tapping into their collective intelligence.

What does this idea look like applied to tech transfer?

Let’s look at the UK startup Marblar, which is applying crowdsourcing principles in its effort to reinvigorate inert IP. That shelved IP reportedly accounts for 95% to 99% of university innovations, and Marblar wants to tap into that giant reservoir by “gamifying” it. That is, they want to make it a game. Here’s how it works: scientists or TTO staff post their shelved research as a “challenge.” Marblar’s online community then tries to find novel ways to develop and commercialize the research. Those innovators whose ideas are implemented receive “marbles” and may also receive cash and partial equity.

Like Marblar, Science Exchange wants to iron out inefficiencies within the university research system. But instead of opening up problems to the public at large, Science Exchange wants to open up the entire university research system by creating a network where researchers can use the resources of other institutions. It’s a win for both the researcher and the institution – the researcher gains access to needed resources and the institution generates revenue from resources it isn’t using.

So, think crowdsourcing might work for your organization? Before you dive headfirst into the crowd, Laura Schoppe, president of Fuentek and VP for AUTM, has some concerns.

Many organizations don’t realize that there can be significant cost associated with crowdsourcing, Schoppe cautions. For instance: the manpower needed to sift through submissions. Because individuals are most likely to attempt to solve your problem, you’ll likely face a pool of solvers without the right expertise or industry knowledge to develop sufficient solutions. You won’t know what’s gold and what’s fools good (or just foolish) until you mine through it. And many solvers don’t have the capacity to ensure conflicting IP rights don’t already exist. There’s another expense you’ll incur.

You may also be hit with frivolous lawsuits because a solver didn’t hire a lawyer to review the contract they signed before submitting their idea. If the solver feels somehow cheated, you’ll face both the expense and PR crisis should a lawsuit be filed.

What about crowdsourcing services? Keep in mind there will likely be setup costs, posting fees, a fee for a solution being found and a fee due to the solver. After you pay those fees, you’ll likely incur more cost in finalizing development of the solution to make it commercially viable.

But Schoppe isn’t down and out about crowdsourcing completely. She just wants caution to be taken. Determine the real costs and your ROI and be targeted, strategic and proactive, she advises.

Do you have crowdsourcing success stories? Nightmares? If you haven’t dipped a toe into crowdsourcing, do you think you might down the road? Let us know in the comments!

0 thoughts on “Swimming Through the Crowd: Crowdsourcing and Tech Transfer”

  1. This concept involves posting in a wiki-type environment – essentially, its collaborative problem solving. I’ve seen it done, even back in the 1990s, by tax-exempt organizations, but this is the first time I’ve seen where people would be contributing proprietary-type information in this manner. So I find that a novel concept.

    David S. Jackson
    Carlile Patchen & Murphy LLP


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