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Technology Transfer Offices as Educators

How Educational Content and the Educational Process Can Help the Tech Transfer Community

It is no secret that the administrative aspects of a university are sometimes deemed inefficient by the outside world. Unfortunately, university tech transfer offices (“TTOs”) are sometimes the recipient of this criticism, which may come from a lack of knowledge and understanding by the community. However, by educating scientists and the community about the function and value of TTOs, many of these critiques can be dispelled. This article will discuss how researchers, other tech transfer professionals, and for-profit companies may perceive TTOs as inefficient, how these negative perceptions can be changed through education and why the educational content, as well as the educational process is beneficial and important for all involved.

Researchers & Tech Transfer Offices

Researchers may perceive TTOs as inefficient because they are unaware of the many responsibilities and obligations of a TTO. Part of a TTO’s responsibility is to provide an educational service to its researchers. By showing researchers how TTOs help facilitate their research and not stunt its growth, TTOs can help change researchers’ perceptions. These conversations can happen in a number of different ways. Whether they be in a seminar, in one-on-one meetings or through educational materials, TTOs can provide information about the importance of technology transfer and intellectual property and how they affect a scientist’s research. The content should reflect not only general aspects of technology transfer but also how those aspects fit that specific office’s mission. More generally, the information can include that TTO’s policies (for example, how that office deals with conflicts of interest), royalty-sharing formula, the process for disclosing new technologies and the impact that publishing can have on patents. TTOs may also want to give more specific information, such as kinds of technologies that are successful in licensing deals and others that may not be as highly sought after.1 TTOs will be able to provide the scientist a realistic amount of revenue a particular technology could potentially generate. This will help researchers understand which inventions may or may not be pursued in licensing deals and, at the same time, will help a TTO manage the researcher’s expectations.

These conversations are important because they provide an avenue to develop relationships between TTOs and their researchers. When a researcher creates an invention, the hope of every TTO is that the researcher will communicate that information to them. A researcher’s awareness of the services that a TTO provides will help the office comply with laws and regulations and will therefore help a TTO do its job. If these conversations have already been initiated, a researcher is much more likely to disclose their invention to the TTO. Sometimes if TTOs are not kept in the loop after an invention’s development, they may have trouble determining its commercial viability. If the researcher is not aware of his/her TTO’s services, he/she may not know that disclosing the invention to the TTO is even a step in the process. Continued relationship building between TTOs and their scientists will help ensure that a TTO is doing its best to provide an educational service to its researchers and will ease researchers’ frustrations with the TTO and compliance processes.

Teaching researchers that not only are common tech transfer processes required by law but that these processes are meant to protect researchers’ as well as a universities’ rights is a responsibility of the TTO.2 Researchers may not realize how much time and energy is spent ensuring that the university is abiding by these laws, because they don’t see this work happening, they don’t see how it affects them or they don’t know the process. After a TTO explains all the behind the scenes work required to license an invention, for example, they might be able to eliminate some of the researcher’s criticisms, or, at least, to help him/her better understand the issues.

Tech Transfer Community & Tech Transfer Offices

Other members of the tech transfer community would also benefit by learning from TTOs through educational content and the educational process. Transactions between universities can be relatively straightforward, because universities generally share similar visions and motivations.3 However, this doesn’t mean that all transactions are easy. TTOs may perceive other offices as inefficient because each office is managed differently, distributes resources differently and sets goals differently . For example, TTOs from larger organizations tend to have larger offices which are run differently than TTOs from smaller organizations with smaller offices. Projects or licensing deals in larger offices may be broken up into groups of multiple staff members, while these same sorts of tasks in smaller offices may be the responsibility of one person or no one in particular. This might be due to a lack of resources or an intentional choice by a manager. Either way, the strain or pressure that a staff member may feel from understaffing can negatively impact internal processes and external relationships with other TTOs. Despite the fact that each TTO might be based out of a university or non-profit organization, some TTOs might focus much more on generating revenue, which can significantly impact the way an office’s resources are distributed. When revenue is a goal, transactions that have the potential to generate large amounts of revenue will generally get more attention than those that deal with less lucrative academic to academic transactions.

TTOs can learn from their differences to help change each other’s perceptions. They can share their experiences and strategies in licensing university intellectual property, marketing their services and products to both industry and researchers within their university, and creating successful offices. These can be shared in meetings, conferences, phone calls and email. Belonging to a tech transfer association, such as the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), is another way that TTOs can learn from their peers. AUTM, for example, has online message boards where an abundance of valuable information exists. Questions and thoughts can be posted and other members of AUTM can provide their own input. These boards allow for professionals to easily connect and learn from one another. Not only can TTOs learn about other offices, but they may also choose to use that information in evaluating and improving their own office.

By educating other TTOs about one’s own office and becoming more transparent about some of the realities behind these perceived inefficiencies, other TTOs will be able to at least understand why inefficiencies may occur. A lack of staffing or resources can be a real concern for an office, not only how it affects the office internally, but also when dealing with other TTOs. Moreover, when a university deems revenue generation as a goal while other universities do not, it’s no surprise that sometimes difficulties between offices arise. If TTOs recognize that a particular office may be doing the best it can with the resources and guidelines it was given, then inter-TTO transactions can be structured to account for those limitations.This process will additionally have positive downstream effects on relationships between TTOs and non-TTOs, such as individual researchers. By learning more about other TTOs, TTOs will have more information to better assist their own researchers. While these issues may seem difficult to correct, beginning a conversation to help change an office’s perception about why these problems come up will help each TTO create better relationships with each other and become more understanding of an office’s perceived issues.

For-profit Companies & Tech Transfer Offices

For-profit companies may also perceive TTOs as inefficient. Part of this is due to a fundamental difference between for-profit and non-profit organizations: for-profit companies are generally profit-driven while non-profit organizations are mission driven. This difference can significantly affect a relationship between a TTO and a for-profit company. Negotiations, for example, can be held up because for-profits sometimes ask for certain terms of agreements to be changed, while the university simply cannot make those concessions.4 Some of the most common points of contention in a material transfer agreement are those that deal with publication. When a company shares a material with a university, companies may try to restrict information within a researcher’s paper or decide how that information can be used and for what purpose. It is understandable for the company to be concerned about a publication, because they may want to protect valuable confidential information or to preserve the material’s patentability.5 Companies may also want to include terms of ownership relating to any resulting data or inventions and terms that conflict with a researchers’ funding agreements.6 However, these go against a university’s mission to disseminate knowledge and to facilitate research.

One opportunity to educate for-profit companies is during these material transfer agreement negotiations. This will give the TTO an opportunity to provide information about what terms can and cannot be negotiated and why. This information will spark a discussion about their respective universities’ policies and how the policies could be implemented or accounted for in transactions with for-profit companies. TTOs should be clear in explaining the university’s mission and policies and why their hands are tied in some cases and why concessions can be made in other cases. In the publication example above, an overly onerous restriction on publication should be fought by a TTO, because the restriction would be a very clear violation of the university’s mission. TTOs know they have an obligation to protect the rights of the university and their researchers, and this can lead to drawn out negotiations if a for-profit company is unable to appreciate this fact. The more opportunities TTOs take to educate for-profit companies about its mission and policies, the more likely that these same issues will not come up again in the future.

While these different goals sometimes make it difficult to find common ground, educating commercial entities about these differences will improve for-profit and TTO relations and will make for more efficient transactions. These discussions will not only help their current relationship, but the information the for-profit company learns can easily translate to transfers between them and other non-profits. By explaining the important role that TTOs have within the community, they could help eliminate some of the issues regarding negotiation and help the company better understand why the reasoning behind the perceived inefficiencies.

A lack of knowledge by scientists, other TTOs and companies can sometimes lead to misunderstandings between them and a university’s TTO. However, if TTOs are able to educate each of these groups about what they do, what their goals are and why their offices provide these services, future interactions between these groups and TTOs will be much more productive. This will also help TTOs reduce those criticisms of inefficiency, which will benefit the TTO and therefore the entire tech transfer community. There are of course additional ways that TTOs can educate the outside world about their office that are not discussed in this article, but these suggestions are a good place to start.

The material contained in this newsletter is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. It is understood that each case is fact-specific, and that the appropriate solution in any case will vary. Transmission of this material is not intended to create and receipt does not establish an attorney-client relationship. While the material is intended to be accurate, errors or omissions may be contained herein, for which any liability is disclaimed. Legal advice of any nature should be sought from your legal counsel.

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