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Changing the mindset: Boosting faculty engagement still a challenge for TTOs

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: June 14th, 2017

Quick: Name a major department at a university that has been in place for years, and yet many faculty members are not aware that it exists and/or have little idea what it does. If you said “tech transfer office” you’d be dead on, at least in the minds of several experts who participated in a panel at the AUTM 2017 annual meeting.

One of the most common barriers to that goal, said Benjamin Dibling, PhD, executive director of licensing at the Penn Center for Innovation, is awareness, “particularly at larger institutions.” He still meets people, he added, who are unaware of what his office does. Other barriers, he continued, are ease (or lack thereof) of working with the TTO, and the time commitment associated with commercialization for busy faculty.

“We try to make things easier and add education to [the process],” noted Satish Rao, associate director of physical sciences at Columbia Technology Ventures. In order to “make things easier,” more than one panelist indicated, their TTOs had introduced online disclosure forms.

And Brian Shedd, PhD, assistant director in the Office of Innovation & Technology Commercialization at LSU, chose to view lack of awareness in relative terms. “A faculty member not knowing about us is better than them having a horrible experience — and I’ve had that too,” he noted.

The commercialization journey — not to mention the awareness journey — with faculty “can be a hard sell,” Shedd conceded. To make things smoother, he said, “I am very transparent; I like to go meet faculty face to face. I call department chairs to talk to their faculty, and I talk to the labs. A lot of it is going out and meeting people.”

The next step, he continued, “is to deliver some value.” He has to put his salesman’s hat on, he explained, and be very up front about the expectations and requirements of the commercialization effort. “I tell them I do not run a day care; they cannot just drop off a disclosure and then pick up a check,” said Shedd. “This is a journey we take together; I set expectations up front and tell them this is not for everybody, but if they are interested in commercialization I can help. That’s where we start, because often they’ve not really been exposed to tech transfer.”

He makes a special effort with the engineering department, which generates half the university’s disclosures. To enhance accessibility and to demonstrate the TTO’s commitment, he has an office in the engineering building and is there two days a week. “The faculty love it; they can find me,” said Shedd. “It’s a great branding effort.”

Shedd emphasized how important it is to make the process smoother for faculty members. “When I got to LSU the disclosure process was crazy,” he recalled. “They prepared the disclosure document, which required a wet signature and needed witnesses; can we make it any more difficult?”

Since disclosure is “the first contact” and such a critical initial step, he continued, there has to be a lower bar. So, he created an online, interactive form, which offers additional questions based on initial responses. “It takes minutes, and you just click ‘Submit’ at the bottom,” said Shedd. “There’s also a little drop box plug-in if you want to submit papers.”

The system also features an automated follow-up process that includes assignments and uses smart PDFs. The inventor, for example, receives notification from the case manager and gets their disclosure back. The database also encourages case managers to follow up regularly.

“The barrier to engagement is over,” Shedd said, an assertion confirmed by polling his office conducted showing that faculty who use the new process like it. And why not? “A couple of clicks and you’re done,” he noted. A detailed article on invention disclosure strategies appears in the May issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and get the full article, as well as full access to the publication’s 10-year archive of success strategies and best practices for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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