Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Adopt TTO mission statement to align strategies with goals


By David Schwartz
Published: June 13th, 2012

Whether by choice or by force, technology transfer offices often seek to be all things to all people, from university administrators and researchers to state and local government officials, local businesses, licensees, outside investors, and alumni. But taking a scattershot approach to tech transfer is less effective than focusing on a single strategic goal and aligning all activities to that directive, according to two Michigan tech transfer experts.

Michael S. Sharer, PhD, MBA, director of technology transfer and licensing/commercialization at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and Timothy L. Faley, PhD, MBA, managing director of the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, propose that TTOs can improve their results by establishing a clear purpose or mission, which should steer the organization’s goals, strategies, and tactics.

“The essential reason for doing this is to prioritize activities and allocate resources, given that resources are scarce,” Sharer says. “As evidence of the effectiveness of this approach, since I started this office in 2005, invention disclosures are up more than 650%, technologies commercialized are up more than 300%, and technology-based industrial collaborations are up more than 375%.”

Strategic management is generally an afterthought in TTOs — if it’s considered at all, Sharer and Faley maintain. Rarely do major decisions such as patent protection, royalty rates, or commercialization strategies flow directly from a TTO’s expressed strategic goals. Goal statements should be concise, but “most of the mission or goal statements that we found seemed to talk about lots of different priorities,” Sharer says.

In a paper published several years ago in les Nouvelles,1 Sharer and Faley offer a primer on strategic goal-setting for TTOs. Most offices have a general mission that derives from the tenets of the Bayh-Dole Act: to transfer novel technologies from the research environment to the commercial marketplace. But TTOs can’t effectively manage a vision that’s so broad. Instead, they should draft a succinct strategic goal statement that matches their institution’s unique attributes, guiding philosophy, and administrative mandate.

To establish the goal, “you need buy-in from above,” Sharer says, whether from a provost, vice president for research, or other senior administrators. From this dialogue with the institution’s leadership, TTO managers should set the strategic priority for their office, Faley adds. “Is it a revenue source?” he asks. “Is it a public relations source? Is it a faculty source? Or are we just trying to take public funds and translate them into public good?”

Service or profit center?

The nuts and bolts of a TTO’s processes — its strategy or action plan, measurable objectives, and operational tactics — should flow directly from the strategic goal, the researchers explain. All of the TTO’s major decisions — what disclosures to protect, what royalty rate to charge, what type of staff to hire, whether to license a new technology or spin it out — should be made in the context of that goal. “The key concept is that of alignment,” Sharer and Faley write.

In their paper, the authors describe a strategic planning framework for TTOs with four common but distinct goals: 1) to provide service to researchers, 2) to maximize the societal benefit of funded research, 3) to drive local economic development, and 4) to generate revenue for the institution.

The primary functions associated with each of these goals are quite different. A TTO that focuses on helping researchers to commercialize their discoveries should be organized as a “strategic recruiting tool” to help attract top scientists with commercially focused research programs. TTO staff should respond quickly to faculty inquiries, understand the nature of the institution’s principal technology platforms, offer business development assistance to researchers, and emphasize quick and efficient deal-making.

In contrast, a TTO seeking to commercialize university discoveries for the good of society should “determine how each new invention disclosure can best serve society and determine the transfer mechanism that is consistent with its optimal purpose,” the researchers write. Tech transfer professionals at these institutions should identify discoveries that offer a “sustainable differential competitive advantage” and seek exclusive licenses for these technologies, they explain.

Having a more altruistic strategic goal should prompt TTO staff to focus on the long term and exploit the university’s external relationships by seeking industry collaborations, research contracts, government grants, and donations from successful licensees and alumni.

State-supported research universities seeking to create jobs and stimulate their local and regional economies also should cultivate external relationships. However, “since creating new companies is the way to create the largest number of new jobs, the creation of local start-up companies lies at the heart of any goal for generating local/regional economic development,” according to the researchers. Thus, this type of TTO should have skill sets in business development and financing.

Finally, TTOs that primarily serve to generate revenue for the institution should maximize profit for their activities while minimizing costs for staffing, marketing, and patenting. “This revenue-goal scenario creates a portfolio management approach to the discoveries, with emphasis on licensing those discoveries that can be monetized in the short run but also keeping discoveries in the portfolio that have the potential to generate large revenue potential over a considerably longer time horizon,” Sharer and Faley write.

Set SMART objectives to match mission

Once you’ve identified a primary strategic goal and received administration support for it, the next step is to develop a tactical plan to accomplish that goal. For example, responsiveness to faculty is of paramount important in a service-oriented TTO.

Specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound (SMART) objectives for this type of office might include 24-hour response times to phone calls and e-mails from researchers, timely turnaround on IP protection decisions, and efficient management of licensing transactions, Sharer and Faley suggest. Staff also should be equipped to provide researchers with one-on-one and group instruction about business development through meetings, webinars, and newsletters.

“This type of TT office should not be viewed as getting in the way of deals,” the researchers write. “Know when to say ‘no’ to deals for legal or policy reasons, but also make sure to do deals whenever possible.”

By contrast, TTOs whose mission focuses on societal good should sort their invention disclosures, determine the optimal commercial route for each, and focus on patenting only those technologies that offer a “differentiating commercial advantage,” Sharer and Faley suggest. SMART objectives for this type of TTO should emphasize increasing disclosures and transferred technologies relative to historic norms while decreasing transaction costs — for example, by creating “a Web-based, one-click, no-cost license agreement to maximize any technologies transferred through nonexclusive licenses,” they write.

“Only potentially product-differentiating discoveries should be patented with the goal of licensing them exclusively, and licensing managers should seek to patent and license these technologies regardless of apparent market size,” the researchers add. “Discoveries that have the potential to be licensed nonexclusively should be either put into the public domain via traditional publishing and/or licensed on a no-cost basis.”

Offices seeking to generate economic development should network as much or more with external stakeholders as with university researchers. Their SMART objectives might include growing the number of local or regional start-ups and/or the number of licenses to local and regional firms, as well as starting or participating in community angel networks or VC funds.

“This office is heavily oriented towards new business creation and heavily staffed with individuals [who] understand business and business creation,” the authors write. “The default position should be made that the technology will be commercialized by a start-up, and it should be treated as such until there is clear evidence that this goal cannot be achieved, at which point a license to an existing company is considered.”

TTOs that seek to maximize profit should focus on aggressive negotiating and even litigation to maximize revenue from new licensees, assert new and existing patents against suspected infringers, and proactively seek revenue from nonexclusive licenses for research tools, methods, processes, and related technologies, according to Sharer and Faley. Objectives should focus on such metrics as increasing the total number of licenses, the revenue from existing licensees, and the number of potential infringement cases.

No matter what the goal, a disconnect occurs when strategies and goals don’t line up. “Be careful what you measure,” Faley says. “Not only do you need to know your objectives, but your measurements need to be consistent with those objectives. If you’re trying to optimize the number of discoveries that go out into the public but your main measure is revenue dollars or number of agreements, you’re going to be diverted from your goal.”

Stay focused on core competencies

Technology transfer is a complicated process often made more-so by competing pressure from internal and external stakeholders. That’s all the more reason TTOs should launch their decision-making from a solid goal statement.

“Different goals lead to different operational choices,” Sharer points out. “If you haven’t gone through a comprehensive strategic planning process, it’s easy to get pulled in a lot of different directions.”

Tech transfer managers should use their strategic plan to push back against pressure to employ tactics that don’t meet or support their objectives, the authors stress. “You always have exceptions, and it’s hard to deal with them,” Faley admits. Consider the TTO that decides to maximize its operation for societal good and seeks to push technology into the public domain quickly and efficiently. What happens when a star researcher wants assistance to start his or her own company, license a technology exclusively, or leverage his or her research for industrial contracts?

“You’re usually outgunned,” Faley admits. “As the director of the technology transfer office, you don’t have tenure. If you’ve got a star tenured researcher who threatens to leave or pull out his lab, you’ve got no leverage. That’s when you need to go to the vice president of research or provost or wherever the higher authority rests. The response to the researcher needs to come back from that office.”

Avoid dual agendas

Sharer and Faley also caution against trying to balance two agendas — for example, seeking to please administrators by maximizing revenues while also serving the greater good by pushing discoveries into the public domain. Trying to satisfy such competing forces creates conflict and will likely satisfy no one.

In some cases, it may be necessary to adopt two separate missions based on the source of funding for specific research projects — public versus private. “The ownership position [a TTO] may take with respect to nonfederal grant-supported discoveries may differ, as may the licensing strategies,” the authors write. “If such discoveries are handled separately from their Bayh-Dole counterparts, then the goals, objectives, and success measures for the TT office with respect to those discoveries should be measured separately. Under such considerations, a TT office may have two separate primary goals: one for discoveries pursuant to Bayh-Dole and one for discoveries pursuant to nonfederal research grants.”

Nevertheless, a TTO that embraces such a dual strategy must reconcile conflicting staffing needs, policies, IP strategies, objectives, and tactics in an environment of finite resources. For this reason, Sharer and Faley advocate that TTOs adopt a single strategic goal with a focused management plan, perhaps acknowledging secondary goals that represent lower priorities and require fewer resources.

Revisit and revise goal statements

Strategic goal statements should be reviewed from time to time and revised as priorities shift, Sharer and Faley recommend. For example, changes in university leadership may provoke a top-down reassessment of a TTO’s mission. Or a university that enjoyed a large royalty stream over many years might force its TTO to shift gears if that revenue suddenly dries up, Sharer suggests, citing his own university’s experience. “We started out under a revenue-generating model, but [we shifted to] a model that directly supports the research mission of the university, which now makes sense for Western Michigan University,” he says.

It takes many months — sometimes years — for a TTO to bring stakeholders to the table to develop a clear strategic plan, and turnover in key leadership posts can derail or delay the efforts.

Although the les Nouvelles paper outlines just one type of strategic planning model for TTOs, “people can choose whatever strategic planning framework they want,” Sharer insists. “The point is to pick one.”

“Tech transfer is a tough job,” Faley adds. “The expectations are always through the roof. You’ll always be resource-constrained, and you’ll always have more demands than you can meet. But you can’t optimize an operation if you don’t even know what you’re trying to optimize.”

Contact Faley at 734-615-4425 or faley@umich.edu and Sharer at 269-387-8218 or michael.sharer@wmich.edu.

Reference

1. Sharer M, Faley TL. The Strategic Management Of The Technology Transfer Function – Aligning Goals With Strategies, Objectives, and Tactics. les Nouvelles, September 2008; XLIII(3):170-179.

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