Technology transfer as an operating principle of a modern university

Few weeks ago I attended a talk of the Israeli professor, discussing the entrepreneurial university and technology transfer. The professor explained the basic principles of remunerating the faculty competitively, facilitating the faculty innovation and industry demand driven research, which are employed by his university, which is an example of university-industry tandem. Indeed, industry demand driven research and conversion of research into business are basic operating principles in many Israeli academic institutions.

At the end of the talk a Lithuanian attendee sitting next to me turned to me and asked – why the speaker did not speak about technology transfer? This honest question perfectly summarizes the state of technology transfer in many European universities, including the Lithuanian ones.

Over the decade of the EU membership (2004-2014) new EU countries have poured billions into the university research infrastructure, driven by the idea that the supply of science is the weakest link in the national innovation systems. Policymakers thought that this is going to spill into the new innovative businesses and stubbornly non-innovative existing industries. Thus, majority of innovation funding was diverted to universities and especially infrastructure. Little was done to redesign the innovation systems around the industry demand for science and support for innovative entrepreneurship, and even less was done to directly support academic entrepreneurship (save for the entrepreneurial education) and initial stages (the Death Valley) of the technology startups.

Now the choices made appear increasingly questionable – universities are still stuck in producing self-centered or even useless research, which is disconnected from the industry, university patenting is abysmal (in Lithuania over 2003-2013 period the universities filed for less than 15 PCT patent applications, despite of the availability of very extensive support for patenting since 2005 (covering up to 95% of patenting expenses)), university infrastructure is underused and out of bounds for non-university researchers, while innovative university research is as rare as it was before (if not less due to braid drain).

Nevertheless, technology transfer is still assumed to be a science supply driven process by the policymakers and money still flows to the universities to set up technology transfer strategies (see e.g. http://www.mita.lt/lt/inovacijos/komercinimo-centrai/finansavimas/). While universities are enjoying the bounty, the outcomes for the economy are nowhere to be found. In one recent encounter a vice-rector of the Lithuanian university has seriously suggested that the university shall retain the intellectual property in the results of contract research fully paid for by the industry, in another case – the university claimed 10% from a turnover of the company interested in licensing pre-clinical technology.

Supply driven university technology transfer is bound to fail regardless of the resources thrown at it, especially if the demand for technology in the industry is not nurtured on equal terms and if the conversion of the university research into business is not recognized as a primary purpose. In the supply driven system there is no real incentives for the universities and faculty to engage into technology transfer, industry and university are not equals (and definitely not equally conscious about efficiency and costs). Unfortunately, in many countries it is still incomprehensible to the universities that industry shall dictate certain university research topics and priorities. Academics who venture into industry face discriminatory terms (e.g., disqualification from research grants). Universities and policy makers are not in position to unilaterally judge on the would be demand. On top of this, universities have no resources and experience in managing IP, while faculty at the universities has very little incentives to produce IP valuable to the industry (published papers count more). In the new EU member states faculty is also undercompensated, especially the youngest and most creative faculty.

Summarizing this situation, the university technology transfer has become only a formal pretence to obtain further public funding for ivory tower science, expensive infrastructure and overheads. It is not an operating principle and is therefore incomprehensible or irritating to many university incumbients. Demand driven technology transfer needs to be urgently resuscitated before all public resources are wasted on the supply of useless science.

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