The idea of giving outsiders free rein to put your TTO under a microscope would strike many tech transfer managers as offputting, to the say the least, but that is exactly what some university administrations are doing. The goals of such an exercise typically vary, with some leaders looking for fresh perspective or validation while others want to shake up the status quo. And while the process of going through such a thorough, whole body scan could hardly be characterized as pleasant, many veterans of such examinations acknowledge that the often sobering results can nonetheless push their commercialization efforts forward with new thinking and, in some cases, a vastly expanded mission.
One of the latest universities to go down this road is the University of Washington in Seattle. The president of the university, Michael Young, tasked an “advisory committee on commercialization” to consider how the university could nurture an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” across the campus and do a better job of engaging with the business community in the region.
The advisory committee’s resulting report, first issued in October of 2013, is certainly blunt, faulting UW for having high licensing transaction costs, a bureaucracy that is too burdensome for potential licensees, and a culture that actually discourages entrepreneurship in some academic sectors. However, as is typical of such assessments, the report also suggests a roadmap for how the university can transform to meet the needs of a changing economic landscape.
Further, while it is still too early gauge the impact of this process on UW’s commercialization efforts, the advisory committee-driven approach may offer lessons to other universities that are hungry for new ideas on how to optimally leverage their innovative capabilities.
While two faculty members served on the president’s advisory committee at UW, it was comprised primarily of people outside of the university world including two entrepreneurs, three venture capitalists, and an attorney specializing in corporate finance and start-ups. This is a departure from more traditional internal review processes that rely heavily on benchmarking and perhaps some input from colleagues who serve in other technology transfer operations. However, in this case UW’s president was clearly attempting to get a larger sense of how the university interacts with the community, and what changes need to be made to ensure that the university’s intellectual output is addressing community needs — including industry partners.
“We are pretty well-versed in how other TTOs are run, but what we were really trying to see – and this was coming from the [university] president — was how do we make the next step into innovation, how do we innovate as a university, so we were really looking more at our constituents and people who really matter to us as a university,” observes Vikram Jandhyala, UW’s vice provost for innovation, a new position that was created at the suggestion of the advisory committee. “We really wanted to see whether we were [providing] the right service for the Seattle and Washington [State] area, and also on a broader scale.”
In broad terms, the advisory committee’s report was all about positioning the university for the next iteration of technology transfer, says Jandhyala. “The first version of tech transfer was looking at licensing, [and] then we wanted to be more active and so we moved to a stage of helping start-ups come out of the university,” he explains. Now the challenge involves coming up with a way to create a cultural shift in both students and faculty so that the university is really managing its intellectual resources in a way that addresses both social and technical challenges, notes Jandhyala. “Universities are changing a lot of their models in terms of how they attract students, how they measure impact, and how they work with their community, so the timing was right to figure out whether we were doing our best in terms of how we get our ideas out into the public domain,” he says. A detailed article on using external assessments to drive improvements in commercialization appears in the November issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, along with the publication’s eight-year archive (free to subscribers) of tech transfer success strategies and best practices, CLICK HERE.