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APLU report: TTOs urged to put economic development front and center

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: January 31st, 2018

It’s no secret that TTOs are being asked to do much more than they have in the past; they’ve moved beyond traditional licensing and patenting activities into start-up generation and partnering with governmental and private-sector entities to drive economic development. In fact, a new report by the Technology Transfer Evolution Working Group of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) argues that the economic development mission should be the primary task at hand for TTOs going forward, and it calls on university leaders to redefine their stated expectations for TTOs accordingly. (To read the full report, click here.)

With economic development front and center, the report calls on research institutions to adapt their innovation management structures so that previously siloed functions can work more collaboratively and effectively to create impact. The authors also emphasize the need to nurture an institution-wide, entrepreneurial culture so that there is no mistaking an institution’s overarching vision.

“Every state institution has a role in driving the economy in the region in which it sits through their expertise, their capabilities and their talent pipeline as well as their role on workforce development,” observes Julie Nagel, the co-chair of the APLU working group that produced the new report. Nagel is the president of KU Innovation and associate vice chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Kansas. “We need to do a better job of talking about the overall economic engagement strategy that universities have, and the impact they are having in their regions,” she says.

Of course when TTOs are asked to do more, older revenue models are not sufficient to support these added activities, observes Nagel. “There are many TTOs where there is always the ongoing expectation that their revenue should pay for [TTO operations],” she says. “We hope this report drives a new conversation.”

For instance, Nagel observes, if the TTO is helping to educate students about entrepreneurship and it is doing outreach and engagement with community partners, then the TTO is engaged in many activities beyond licensing and patenting that are important to the mission of the university. “We have to diversify where those budgets come from,” she says. “Yes, many of us are embedded in research, but how those monies flow inside the university needs to be looked at creatively. Also, there are external partnerships that could be created to help in that overall functionality because [the TTO] is driving economic development in the region.”

It doesn’t help that TTOs tend to be ranked and judged nationally solely on how much money they bring in and how many patents they filed and got issued, states Nagel. “Those are a piece — a transactional piece — of an economic engagement strategy. But if we are being asked to be more fluid through that strategy and the overall mission of the university, then we have to be able to report more broadly the impact that our units are having for the university,” she says. “There are many things that are missing that we are asked to do every single day that we are not judged on because of the popularity of the rankings and the metrics that AUTM [Association of University Technology Managers] publishes every year.”

Many universities have already made significant strides toward evolving their TTOs into broader vehicles for regional economic development, and the APLU report highlights many of these efforts. A detailed article on the report and university efforts in line with its recommendations appears in the January issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and get the full article, and gain access to the publication’s archive filled with hundreds of case studies and success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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