The Future of TTO Staffing: Trends and Drivers
Times they are a changing and rest assured the hand of time is turning on technology transfer as well. This “clock” is not ticking down, but rather progressing into the future of our profession and asking us to reflect, envision, and adapt our approaches to build successful technology transfer programs in this new reality. Over the next few posts, I’d like to share some thoughts on the future of technology transfer and what this might mean for TTO staffing.
The starting point for any foresight exercise is to understand the megatrends that impact the current state. The following are five major drivers affecting university technology transfer initiatives, and by association, their approach to staffing:
- Budget pressure on universities: This is the big one, and universities and society are beginning to accept the fact higher education is prepping for the proverbial “disruption”. This will spark a micro-evaluation of cost centers, like TTOs, and their year-to-year budgets. Tech transfer operations, built to focus predominantly on revenue generation, may find it more difficult to justify their success (and near-term potential) than those that have hedged with an economic development, social good, and education priorities. This speculation will especially hurt those offices already downsized, smaller universities, or those with little history of technology transfer operations
- Changes in early stage funding landscape for both research and commercialization: Generally, the early stage capital continuum can be summarized as a focusing of public dollars and an evolving private partnership landscape. Federal and state initiatives are orienting towards technology and start-up gap funding, and sources of basic research funding are placing more emphasis on seeing their projects develop into tangible public good. Industry is seeing an opportunity for leveraging university innovation, capabilities, and insights for growth. Early stage investment in technology and start-ups are experiencing success with university-affiliated gap funding programs, and may get additional support with the emergence of crowdfunding as an alternative
- Evolving relationships and expectations from industry, and economic development stakeholders: As government, industry, and other entities become stronger sources of support, technology transfer offices and associated units must adapt their contracts and institutional partnership agreements surrounding basic, applied, and contract research. I believe that those that push passed bureaucracy to take a competitive approach will be best positioned and respected by both public and private partners (without giving away the shop, of course!)
- Social and political pressure: We have shot ourselves in the foot by leading with long-term success versus the promotion of near-term value. It often seems that the promise of significant revenue generation can mask the great things that we are doing for society every day. The result is a government, easily swayed by opinion, that is understandably confused by our motives and thus less clear on our results. The shifting support provides an opportunity to align our near-term value with our private and public counterparts.
- Creative work arrangements: Let’s imagine that empire-building could actually negatively impact production—that there are some of our tech transfer functions that could be better performed by someone that wasn’t our full-time dedicated employee. What might these functions be and who are the best people to fill the need? We will get into that in the next post.
In the next post, we will discuss how this emerging reality could affect technology transfer staffing and how offices can best allocate staffing based on the “core vs. contract” arrangements to be better positioned succeed in the future.