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Commercialization added to tenure criteria, boosts flow of inventions

The article below appeared in the October 2007 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics.

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Tenure-track professors and researchers at the University of Texas A&M are finding they can get more than royalty payments by commercializing their innovations: it can ultimately help lead to the tenured position they covet.

Late last year the College Station, TX-based institution became what is believed to be the first public university in the U.S. to formally incorporate commercialization into its criteria for granting tenure to professors, says Guy Diedrich, vice chancellor for technology commercialization. Already, the change has led to a marked increase in patent applications filed by tenure-track faculty.

One of the first professors at Texas A&M to benefit from the new policy was John Criscione, MD, PhD, a young tenure-track assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department who developed a cardiac assist device that the Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) filed for patent protection on in 2003. Criscione started his own company to commercialize the device and licensed his invention from the OTC. He was awarded tenure, in part, because he is commercializing his research, explains Diedrich.

The path to tenure at most universities is based on a combination of publishing, teaching, and participation in the community of scholars. Diedrich and his colleagues believed so strongly in the importance of researchers’ involvement in developing an idea and helping to commercialize it that they sought to amend the tenure criteria to encourage young researchers to think the same way. Without that policy change, many younger tenure-track professors may not focus on licensing and commercialization as an essential part of their work because it wouldn’t necessarily get them any closer to tenure, speculates Diedrich.

“There has been a cultural belief that academic research and commercialization are at odds with each other,” he observes. “In fact, we found they are complementary. You have to consider research as a process, not an event that begins and ends with an innovation and publication of that new idea.” Bringing research to market has such a major impact on the university’s ability to fund further research — and in terms of burnishing a school’s reputation and attracting more talent to the faculty — “you have to be able to reward for commercialization,” asserts Diedrich.

In late 2006, he asked the university’s Board of Regents to add a fourth criterion of commercialization — where appropriate — for granting tenure at Texas A&M. The board approved the request and amended the criteria.

While a small handful of private universities are known to include commercialization as part of their tenure criteria for tenure, Diedrich believes Texas A&M is the first public university to adopt such a measure. When he couldn’t find tenure policies at other public universities to model the new criteria after, the OTC crafted its own language. The policy was worded carefully to give department heads and deans involved in tenure decision-making the flexibility to decide how to weigh commercialization activities of tenure-track professors as part of the overall criteria. Even more important, the revised policy doesn’t punish any tenure-track professors who don’t patent innovations that ultimately result in products in the marketplace, says Diedrich.

“Obviously, English and sociology professors won’t be involved in much commercialization,” he says. “But engineers, medical researchers and scientists are innovating all the time and producing products that could potentially be beneficial to society. We believe those that commercialize an idea are distinguishing themselves among their peers and should be rewarded for that. It recognizes the full spectrum of value a researcher can bring to an academic environment.”

Overcoming faculty fears

Not surprisingly, there were concerns among Texas A&M’s academic community that the tenure-granting process would somehow be jeopardized by adding the fourth criteria, recalls Diedrich. Some professors worried the new criteria would interfere with academic freedom, and that researchers might feel compelled to focus their research on ideas that could lead to commercialized products while abandoning other important, but potentially less marketable, innovations.

To allay those fears, Diedrich met with anyone who had concerns about the new tenure policy. Open forums were held on campus, where dozens of faculty members showed up to ask questions. And a separate, all-faculty committee was formed to make recommendations on the commercialization criterion and how it should be worded.

“We wanted the faculty to be comfortable with what we were doing,” notes Diedrich. “The faculty helped us get there.”

Before Texas A&M amended its tenure criteria, there were virtually no tenure-track professors who beat a path to the technology transfer office to file patents, says Diedrich. In the last year since the new policy was instituted, there has been a noticeable stream, mainly among engineering, science and medical researchers, he says.

“If your entire goal is to get tenure, you will do what you’re rewarded for,” he observes. “Now that they can get rewarded for commercialization, they are more comfortable coming to us.”

Diedrich predicts the new tenure policy will give the university a competitive edge in attracting market-savvy researchers looking for a university eager to help them pursue their disciplines. Many younger researchers have commercialization on their list of priorities when seeking university employment, he says. Frequently, they even ask to meet with a tech transfer manager to learn about the university’s commercialization services and what incubator-type resources for start-ups might be available to them.

“Many younger researchers have friends who are academic researchers that have made money on the technologies they’ve developed, so it’s natural that they’d be interested in that too,” explains Diedrich. “The added benefit of having commercialization count towards tenure gives us a real competitive advantage in drawing hot, new researchers.”

Contact Diedrich at 979-458-6000 or gdiedrich@tamu.edu.


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