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Stick with what you do best, says tech transfer exec

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Although he has approached the challenge somewhat differently, Dan Sharp, associate vice president for research and director, Office of Technology Commercialization, a the University of Texas Austin, agrees with Johns Hopkins that a TTO should not try to be all things to all people. “Our underlying philosophy is that the TTO does what it does best, and for what it does not do best it uses others,” he says. “You have to have a director who does not want to grow the office for its own sake. I have no problems sloughing off to others; it allows us to do our core functions better.”

What the TTO at UT Austin looks like today, he continues, “is a product of our experiences — things that have worked and things that have not.” Sharp, who practiced law in Silicon Valley for well over a decade, admits he had a number of preconceptions when he came to his job.

What has resulted from the lessons he learned is a structure with perhaps less formal delineations than the Hopkins model, with other differences as well. For example, his department has “fewer people than normal,” which you might think would create a need for outside help. “But we try to pay wages competitive with industry; our folks on a per-person basis probably have a higher workload than average,” says Sharp. “I probably delegate more day-to-day decisions to them, because I trust them.”

Sharp says he learned in law that smaller teams are more effective. “The more work you do, the better your quality will be,” he insists.

He notes that while universities have varying degrees of resources, each should use what is available to enhance their efforts. “For example, we have VC professionals [in the Austin area] and other tech entrepreneurs; they are happy to talk to our professors. I think it’s ridiculous for a university not to leverage those resources.”

A prime example of UT Austin’s philosophy regarding the OTC’s focused role is its relative lack of involvement in pushing for more start-ups. “We felt that start-ups in general was a campus responsibility, that a TTO should not drive it — university leadership should drive it,” says Sharp. “In addition, we are separate from the technology incubator — participants have to be signed by incubator.”

The university’s “Innovation Center,” led by Ethernet inventor Dr. Bob Metcalfe and local entrepreneur Louise Epstein, fosters the creation of start-ups based on technologies at UT, and also provides mentoring. However, adds Sharp, “we are all linked. When we find a professor interested in a start-up we do the licensing, but [Metcalfe and Epstein] come in and talk about the start-up; they can make introductions to VCs and so on. I am not so vain as to think I can advise start-ups as well as they can.”

It also makes a big difference whether a university is public or private, notes Sharp. “If we’re public we’re all government employees and we have different conflicts of interest,” he observes. “At Rice, for example, the government code does not apply. What we’ve found here was that the more familiar you were with the rules, the more flexible you were able to be.”

However, he continues, it’s critical to understand personal and organization limitations. And despite his legal background he sometimes requires opinion of counsel. “We have a generous legal budget; that enables me to hire top-tier law firms,” says Sharp.

This, in turn, gives the university a good deal of credibility with sophisticated parties, but again, many universities do not have such resources. “I am really hesitant to criticize anyone because they do not have the resources,” Sharp says.

One of UT Austin’s underlying strategies may resonate with many other universities that don’t have unlimited resources — he believes strongly that the focus of a TTO should never be on quantity. “It’s only one metric,” he cautions. “We focus on quality – we pick our partners differently. It used to be, ‘Let’s go with start-ups’ because that’s what people did. But in the first three or four months we spent 70% of our time trying to terminate those licensing agreements.” Sharp reached the conclusion that “it’s foolish for a university to go for capital intensive technologies, as though if you just had a license people would flock to you. If you emphasize numbers you get a lot of that.”

For universities with limited resources to expand beyond their expertise, he advises that they contract with third parties that offer reasonable rates. “You do what you can do well with the resources you have and try to find some reasonable alternative if you know you can’t do something,” says Sharp. However, he adds, “there is a lot of diligence you have to do to pick your partner. These are private entities — their goals are to make money, but as a university our stated goal is to take the work done in our labs and put it into the public in exchange for something of value.”

Contact Sharp at 512-471-4738 or 

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