Tech Transfer eNews Blog

TTOs introduce awards programs to recognize outstanding staff


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: January 8th, 2020

Employee morale may be difficult to quantify, but nonetheless several TTOs have instituted awards programs whose main rationale is to let outstanding staff members know that their work has been noticed and appreciated.

For example, the TTO at the University of Michigan recently presented its inaugural Jessica Soulliere Outstanding Service Award, so named to honor an outstanding staff member who had passed away after a bout with cancer. NASA presents an achievement award each year for the TTO with the highest number of patent licenses. The award, which is three years old, was most recently presented to the Kennedy Space Center TTO, which had 18 licenses in one year. And at North Carolina State University, the TTO has been presenting individual staff recognition awards since 2012; the program has grown to include a number of different awards each year.

Even though the Michigan award was the first specifically presented by the TTO, it was not the first such award presented to a staff member. “Awards have been given by the Vice President of Research, and staff have received a couple,” says Kelly Sexton, PhD, associate vice president for research – technology transfer and innovation partnerships at Michigan. “University-wide awards are given by the Vice President for Research to staff who support the mission to catalyze, safeguard and support innovation at the University of Michigan.”

Although the desire to recognize staff performance is something these TTOs have in common, what drives the decision to initiate the awards can vary from campus to campus. For example, says Sexton, hers was the inspiration of a single individual. “Last year we asked for a posthumous award honoring Jessica Soulliere, whose lasting influence was her focus on providing phenomenal customer service to our inventors,” she shares. “It was a remarkable one-time recognition, but we wanted to make it an ongoing, continual award; we wanted to honor her legacy and her contributions to the office.”

Sexton adds that around the same time Soulliere was often absent battling cancer, the unit was revisiting its mission, vision, and values, and she was very much part of that process. “We used that for the framework of a 24- to 36-month strategic plan,” she says.

“One of the things we struggled with in defining our core beliefs was having to decide who we’re serving,” she continues. “At some universities they serve the licensees, some the administration, and sometimes entrepreneurs. We felt the right thing for us and the office culture was to be clear we’re serving the inventors — an inventor-centric TTO. We came up with a number of beliefs, and each one has a statement describing how we live that belief. One of them is reflected in this award in service — we believe in providing phenomenal inventor-centered customer service. We bounced around a lot of ideas on how to honor Jessica’s legacy, and decided this annual award recognizing outstanding service was the way to go.”

“My graduate background is in organizational change management,” says Wade Fulghum, MBA, assistant vice chancellor in NC State’s Office of Research Commercialization, whose ideas spurred the staff awards there. “Part of it is culture, part development, and things I learned in grad school — employee incentive programs that are not monetary-based, but that recognize employees and increase morale.”

The first such award, he recalls, was the “Rainmaker” award, given to a person who contributes to the bottom line significantly — either through some big deal, or perhaps by finding ways to save money. The second was the “Above and Beyond” award, whose meaning is self-explanatory.

Awards developed subsequently include the “Tough Deal” award, for someone who either had the toughest deal to negotiate or perhaps a difficult partner or situation; the “ABC (Always Be Closing)” award; and the “Innovation Award” for someone who comes up with a new program or idea.

A detailed article on TTO staff award and incentive programs appears in the December issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, CLICK HERE.

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