Tech Transfer Central
Technology Transfer Tactics
ARTICLE REPRINT

Adopt these best practices and boost the impact of inventor recognition programs

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

Inventor recognition programs can excite and motivate faculty and other inventors to participate in the innovation ecosystem, says Laura Schoppe, MBA, MSE, president of the technology transfer consulting firm Fuentek LLC in Cary, NC. But it takes more than just a quick thank you lunch to have a significant impact. “When you have an awards event and do it well, it has a lot more meaning for inventors than you may realize,” Schoppe says. “Everyone comes back from the event talking about how wonderful it was, and the people who didn’t attend ask, ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’ So it creates a conversation — and a desire to be part of the party the next time.”

This past May, the Office of Technology Management (OTM) at Washington University in St. Louis held its inaugural Celebration of Inventors, and the feedback from faculty and other inventors underscores the importance of these events. “I thought we were providing a nice thank-you. However, at each turn, I am amazed by how meaningful this was to our faculty members,” says Nichole Mercier, PhD, OTM managing director.

“Many inventors felt like this dimension of their work life was closed off and under the radar before our event,” explains Mercier. “It isn’t recognized in their everyday work, but it’s very important to them. This recognition was just so desired, and they were so appreciative of being celebrated for their innovation and commercialization activities.”

The excitement wasn’t limited to inventors. “The Monday following the event, every single pocket of our office was talking about how wonderful this event was, how good they felt about having participated in it, and how excited they were about next year’s event,” says Mercier.

Maximize the impact

The following best practices can help technology transfer offices maximize the impact of awards events in their inventor recognition programs:

• Assess your TTO’s readiness. When Mercier took the helm at the Washington University OTM three years ago, implementing her vision for the office required “boring but important underneath-the-car-hood work, such as improving transparency and establishing staff work processes,” she says.

“So for the first few years, every single person in our office put in significant work and effort to ensure our basic systems serve our customers well,” points out Mercier. “We had our inaugural Celebration of Inventors this year because it was the first year we had enough time to think about the more fun and enthusiastic side of innovation. We made developing a celebration of culture for our faculty one of our goals and objectives for fiscal year 2018.” (Not ready to commit to an awards event or want to expand beyond a single event? See below.)

• Implement a culture of celebration for your staff. To lay the groundwork for the first Celebration of Inventors, last year Mercier built a celebration culture into the Washington University OTM itself. “It is very easy for support staff to feel like their work isn’t as meaningful as, for example, a big deal that someone just closed,” she notes. “So we worked that celebration culture into our office. We wanted people in the office to know that the work they do has meaning and value.”

Mercier offers these examples of how she built a celebration culture within the OTM:

— During staff meetings held every other month, “we go around the room and ask staff: What was your win in the last two months? It could be a little win or a big one, but what is something that you are really proud about?” says Mercier. “Sometimes the managers also will bring something forward and recognize someone in the office for an exceptional contribution.”

— Mercier might take a small team out to lunch to say thank you for their hard work on a project that, for example, is important to day-to-day management but not high profile.

— To thank staff for contributing to the success of the first Celebration of Inventors, Mercier allowed everyone to take off an afternoon of their choice the following week.

“We do an annual family picnic so that our team can meet one another socially, but it was important to call out, in some small way, the contributions each team member makes,” says Mercier. “Making the connection of how each staff member can impact other people’s roles — positively or negatively — helps us all think about how we approach our jobs and how we treat one another in the office.”

Finding ways to celebrate wins also helped establish staff buy-in for the OTM’s mission, says Mercier. “People feel good about the work that they are doing, and as a result everyone showed up to the Celebration of Inventors. I didn’t announce in advance that I would give staff time off in compensation, but the whole office attended.”

• Choose an event that fits. “An awards event could be breakfast, lunch, a cocktail party, or even an ice cream social,” says Schoppe. “TTOs can have a strong impact without spending heavily. The key is to choose an event that fits your budget and to time the event for your on-site culture. Pick the time slot that will be easiest for you to get as many people as possible to show up without having a big impact on their schedule.” (See how three universities each formatted their events below.)

It’s also a good idea to build the event around something meaningful, says René Meadors, MPH, a marketing associate in Office of Industry Engagement at the Georgia Tech Research Corp. (GTRC) in Atlanta. For example, GTRC tied its awards event to its birthday. “So our most recent celebration was done in conjunction with GTRC’s 80th anniversary,” she explains.

• Determine the frequency of your awards event. “Think through what is reasonable for you and what you can achieve,” says Schoppe. “It is important not to overcommit but also to be consistent. For example, if you plan to hold an awards event every year or every two years, set it up and announce it that way, and then keep your commitment.”

While many TTOs go the route of annual events, GTRC went a more unconventional route, deciding to hold its awards event every five years. “Unless you have a person dedicated to planning events, once a year probably will be too much for the type of large-scale event that we do (12 awards for excellence and nine research and innovation awards plus a dinner reception at the November 2017 celebration). In addition, it would be hard to pick new winners every year,” says Meadors. “Spacing it out in a way that makes sense for your program can make the awards more coveted in addition to saving you time and money.”

Although the GTRC inventor recognition awards occur every five years, that doesn’t mean there is an awards vacuum in the interim. The Office of the Executive Vice President for Research has five annual awards with cash prizes, including Outstanding Achievement in Research Innovation. This $10,000 prize goes to faculty based on the external economic, social, or policy impact of their research results as measured by patents, licenses, commercialized products, and other factors.

• Set goals and establish a clear message. “It’s important to know why you are doing the event and what goals you hope to accomplish. This will allow you to communicate a clear message from the beginning,” says Doug Hockstad, assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona at the University of Arizona.

“Along with honoring our inventors, our goal is to recognize and honor contributors throughout the ecosystem, both inside and outside the university,” he says. “The Invention to Impact (I-Squared) event (TLA’s annual awards function) creates an atmosphere of celebration and provides a networking opportunity for faculty, staff, senior administration, entrepreneurs, investors, and others.”

Establish tradition, prestige

• Create meaningful awards. “Establish awards for innovation and commercialization activities that you want to promote, and try to name the top-level awards after something unique and meaningful to your organization so you can give the awards a nickname,” says Schoppe. “That could be a prolific inventor (not living) who has reached icon status or even your university mascot. You want to be able to establish some traditions and prestige behind those awards.”

• Establish a process for selecting winners. “If you develop specific awards, you need to make sure there is some integrity to your vetting process,” says Meadors. “We started this process in March for the event that was held in November. So we spent a lot of time making sure the categories we picked were relevant and that the people we picked were spread out enough that everyone felt like they were represented. We also used a voting process that gave voice to internal GTRC staff and key external university groups.”

Similarly, several months before this year’s I-Squared event, Tech Launch Arizona held internal discussions to confirm the award categories and to select candidates, says Hockstad. “Then a committee selected the final winner for each category.”

• Consider holding a showcase if it fits your goals. Over the past two to three years, TLA has integrated an expo or showcase as part of the I-Squared Awards. “We have finally reached a point now where we really like what we’re doing, so we plan to expand it next year,” says Hockstad. “The idea is to give a platform to some of the cool technologies being developed at the university via both start-ups that have spun out of the university and projects that are being worked on within the university.”

I-Squared is open to Tech Launch Arizona’s commercialization partners (e.g., venture capitalists, angel investors, and entrepreneurs) in the local ecosystem, says Hockstad. “The expo is attractive to people who want to participate with us in the commercialization process. They get to come in, network with the leadership and inventors of the UA, and see some incredible innovations.”

Logistics matter

• Start planning early. “More than likely, an awards event will take longer to plan than you think. For example, if you want the university president to attend like we do, you probably will have to plan the date a year in advance due to scheduling issues,” says Paul Tumarkin, senior manager of marketing and communications for Tech Launch Arizona. “So planning ahead is important.”

• Choose your venue with an eye on logistics. The purpose of most awards events is inventor recognition, often with a healthy dose of networking, says Tumarkin. “The honors and the networking are the centerpiece, but food and drink will make or break the attendee experience. So from a logistics and planning standpoint, those always have to be right there well-positioned in the space with the people, the tables, and the awards. You have to visualize all the elements in as much detail as possible and how they’ll flow together in the space you’ve chosen during the planning.”

Location is important, agrees Hockstad. “For example, one year I-Squared ended up being on two different floors — one for our showcase and one for awards presentations. The floors were easily accessible to each other, but people were compartmentalized. Attendees had to make a long walk from the food to the main event space, so people spent less time at the showcase tables.”

It’s also important to get people out of a work-day mindset, suggests Meadors. GTRC held its 2017 celebration at the Historic Academy of Medicine, an Atlanta landmark owned by the Georgia Tech Foundation. “It’s a beautiful old building that is right off campus, so it was easy for people to reach, but it got them out of their normal setting into a formal event space that gave even more importance to the awards presentation,” she explains.

• Be purposeful inviting speakers. In deciding whether to have speakers in addition to hosts at awards events, TTOs should weigh their goals against the number of awards they’re handing out and guests’ attention spans. At Tech Launch Arizona, that means targeting the president of the university to speak briefly, says Tumarkin. “It can be powerful for the president to be there as a voice for technology commercialization on the university’s behalf. This way, the message is not just coming from the TTO but from the university itself.”

Another option is to invite an external speaker. “Sometimes bringing in a speaker can motivate people to participate in the innovation process. For example, you might have a speaker who has successfully spun out a company,” says Schoppe. “However, if you do choose to have speakers, make sure they will contribute to the excitement. Some people look good on paper, but their delivery is dry.”

• Pay attention to the guest list. “To leverage the effort and expense of an awards event, you want to maximize the excitement,” says Schoppe. “Not only do you want to thank the inventors you are giving awards to, you want the afterglow that trickles back and inspires others to participate enthusiastically. Having good people there will get the attendees to talk about the event when they leave — that they are proud they got the award, that it was a great event, etc.”

That means reaching beyond the peer groups of the award winners and including high-level guests, says Schoppe. “You want their boss and their boss’s boss there. So the president of the university and the heads of their departments would be good choices, and you may want to consider key external guests as well.”

At Washington University’s Celebration of Inventors, “our chancellor was there to take pictures with our faculty members — to say thank you to them for participating in the innovation process. Our provost also was there keynoting, and we even were able to get the mayor of St. Louis to come speak and stay through the end as well,” says Mercier. “In addition, all of the deans from the associated colleges attended. So we had people at every level thanking our inventors.”

The goals of the event should determine who else is on the guest list. For example, as previously noted, TLA invited VCs, angel investors, and other commercialization partners. The Washington University OTM invited first-time disclosers to inspire them to keep participating in tech transfer, as well as inviting spouses to set a more social tone.

Getting the word out

• Have a communications plan to boost turnout. The Washington University OTM initially didn’t have the strongest messaging for the Celebration of Inventors, acknowledges Mercier. “I messaged the event at a high level, but I’m not sure how well the message was being driven out to other levels for the first few months. People just didn’t understand what we were doing with the inaugural event. We ended up having to call every inventor who was invited and explain the Celebration of Inventors. Once we did that, people rearranged their schedules to attend. At least 50% of all the inventors we invited — and a much higher percentage of local inventors — attended, contributing to a total attendance of over 200 people.”

With five years of I-Squared experience, TLA knows the value of a strong communications plan. “Your communications plan should outline exactly what messages will go out, to whom, and on what timeline,” says Tumarkin. “For example, we give ample advance notice to the award winners so they can be committed to coming to the event, as well as letting their supervisors know ahead of time to build the excitement. We also send out our invitations to key people on campus, we develop our contact list, and we make sure a week ahead of the event to send out a media advisory to the local news media.”

Messaging goes out through several channels, says Hockstad. “We have channels into all of the intra-university mailing lists, but we also have strong connections with the deans of our major colleges. We have built collaborative relationships with them such that when we reach out with event information, they will propagate those messages to their college communities as well.”

In addition, TLA makes I-Squared an all-office event so that everyone is engaged in the process, says Hockstad. “Part of that engagement is to make sure that our staff is reaching out — to their internal networks in particular — and inviting and reminding about the event. It takes persistence to ensure that people put events on their calendars, that they receive helpful and timely reminders, and that they believe they have a reason to come.”

The communication plan should include steps for effective post-event publicity in addition to pre-event outreach, adds Tumarkin. “Three days before the event, you should have the press release lined up, making sure you highlight all of the inventors. You need to capture good photography at the event so you can support the story with images and even video. Then you can plug in the photographs and send the press release to the media the next morning. If you wait until after the event to pull everything together, the press release will go out a week late — at that point, it’s no longer news.” (See TLA’s 2018 follow-up press release at https://tinyurl.com/yc2kqx8f.)

• Give honorees a physical award — even a ‘silly’ one. “For our National Academy members, we gave them large crystal awards with an illuminated base. For all faculty and other inventors who received an issued patent, we gave them individualized patent cubes engraved with pictures and other information about their patent. Those awards were more expensive, but definitely had the cool factor we anticipated and that everyone appreciated,” says Mercier.

“However, for the start-up founders, all we did was print high-resolution company logos on magnets so they could put them on their lab refrigerators. We’re planning another event for start-ups this fall, so we wanted to honor them at the inventor award ceremony but not do too much,” Mercier reports. “Magnets may seem a little silly in comparison to the other awards we gave out, but they have been so popular that we’ve even printed magnets now for some of our other faculty start-ups that weren’t honored. So awards can be at a lower cost level as long as they are meaningful. Receiving that tangible representation of their companies made the start-up founders feel valued.”

• Keep a tight rein on acceptance speeches. “There’s really no need for most inventors to speak when they receive awards,” says Schoppe. “If you feel like it’s necessary, allow only the inventors who win the highest one or two awards to speak during the ceremony, and work with them beforehand to hone their speech so that it’s short and on message. The more winners ramble, the more boring your event will be. You have to be careful with that.”

One option is to create videos of the top winners and to play them at the event instead of having live speeches, Schoppe suggests. “You can control the message completely, and you also can leverage the videos as a success story and reuse them multiple different ways for social media and other outlets. This isn’t an incredibly expensive add-on, but it does take time and preparation ahead of the event.”

Contact Schoppe at 919-303-5874 or laschoppe@fuentek.com; Mercier at 314-747-1903 or nmercier@wustl.edu; Meadors at 404-385-0434 or Rene.meadors@gtrc.gatech.edu; Hockstad at 520-626-1720 or DouglasH@tla.arizona.edu; and Tumarkin at 520-626-8770 or pault@tla.arizona.edu.

 

 


About Technology Transfer Tactics monthly newsletter...

Find more articles like this one when you subscribe to Technology Transfer Tactics monthly newsletter. Sign up today and get immediate access to our Subscriber-Only Online Resource Center, which includes the entire archive of TTT back issues (since 2007), as well as our treasury of industry research reports, legal opinions, sample forms and contracts, government documents and more.