Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Spotlight on TTOs in pandemic may reveal path to better performance

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: July 29th, 2020

A detailed article on the higher profile among TTOs during the COVID-19 crisis, and the potential opportunities that presents for future improvements in process and performance, appears in the July issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, click here.

Universities and TTOs have delivered solutions to the COVID-19 crisis at lightning speed. From epidemiological modeling, viral gene sequencing, rapid testing and vaccine programs to ventilator production, 3D printed PPE manufacture and AI-driven identification, testing and production of therapeutics, universities have been on the front line of the pandemic with a very public profile. By and large this has produced a silver lining to TTOs and research commercialization activity as university labs and their innovation output are in the public spotlight like never before.

Keith Marmer, DPT, MBA, associate vice president for technology & venture commercialization and corporate partnerships at the University of Utah, notes that governments, politicians, and the public have become more aware of the promising university research that leads to new therapies, vaccines, and diagnostics. He speculates that this awareness will reinforce and shine a fresh spotlight on the need to continue to not only support but also to expand funding for academic research and tech transfer activity.

Chris Donegan, PhD, co-founder of Invention Capital Associates, a strategic consulting and investment firm, believes that governments are betting on science and innovation to pull world economies out of the current recession. One way they might seek to do this, he believes, is by leveraging the considerable infrastructure of academic labs, engineering facilities, and TTO expertise to deliver innovations that will power a recovery. “The infrastructure found in the university system is incredibly valuable, and I think that this value is almost certainly recognized more widely after COVID than it ever was before.”

However, the continued ascendance and increasing funding of innovation and technology transfer are not guaranteed. As Donegan points out, “universities have prominently led the science guidance for many governments, and while this leadership was initially greeted with universal praise, trust in academic epidemiological forecasts is waning and splitting along party political lines. There is a real risk of public disappointment as the reality of vaccine science emerges, and as retractions in major journals like The Lancet happen more frequently — due to poor publications discipline — may further [weaken] this support.”

Marmer conjectures that post-COVID, universities will vary in how much they can maintain the pace of technology transfer they reached during the pandemic, with its urgent need for innovation, quick licensing models, and rush of funding. But one thing the pandemic has confirmed and clarified, he adds, is that technology transfer is a fast-evolving field, and there’s always room for improvement. This improvement, he stresses, needs to happen as a collaborative effort among all stakeholders in the innovation environment, rather than just at universities.

“Technology transfer is a complicated process involving lots of moving parts,” explains Marmer. He mentions university policies, historically decentralized management in universities, conflict of interest issues for faculty, state and federal requirements, and the patent process as factors that can all conspire to slow down commercialization efforts. “These factors preclude TTOs from accelerating certain things. And a lot of companies and investors are just not used to dealing with those things.”

The coronavirus helped expose some of these issues, ironically, by revealing how quickly TTOs and others in the ecosystem could act when necessary. “With the COVID crisis,” adds Marmer, “we had the luxury of a common cause that doesn’t tend to exist in our day-to-day environment. I would use COVID-19 as an example of how we can view the world not from an adversarial standpoint, but [in terms] of what learnings universities — and those entities that work with universities and technology transfer — can recognize. We all can come together to make improvements in the university-industry interface.”

He draws a comparison between universities and drug companies. During the COVID crisis, Marmer notes, universities are primarily focused on delivering solutions; they are not thinking about profit. “Drug companies are doing much of the same,” he says. “But academia and drug companies normally must go through highly complex processes to deliver solutions to society. Neither do a consistently good job of explaining why they are so complex. Hopefully, our office and our university will use this potential day in the sun to do a better job communicating why we do things the way we do them. And to that end, all we can do is ask other stakeholders in the community likewise to do an equally better job of communicating with us. And we’ll take the time to understand them and hope that they’ll take the time to understand us.”

Marmer adds: “We have to use this time not as a window just to say tech transfer folks are good people, and we work hard. That’s been true for decades. Let’s use it as an opportunity to recognize we all have to come together and have a common conversation about how we all work together in a better manner.”

Posted under: Tech Transfer e-News

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