At the Tech Transfer Summit, hosted under Chatham House rules by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), a second elephant was also present in the room, but less obviously discussed.

Last week’s editorial looked at how technology transfer offices (TTOs) and universities were trying to forge closer links with industry, typically seen as an elephant in the room that most avoid discussing.

At the Tech Transfer Summit, hosted under Chatham House rules by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), a second elephant was also present in the room, but less obviously discussed.

This elephant was about which customer is to be served: the principal investigator, university, the economy or the public that might benefit from an invention? Or how are universities sitting in the middle to manage all these competing elements?

It is a challenge. Many universities from the outside seem unclear whether their role is to educate students, carry out top-quality research or act as a catalyst for the regional economy. And, if all three, what is the order of priority?

For the second year, the US-based Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) has asked questions specifically targeted at ascertaining the economic impact of academic technology transfer as the association responded to the “mission creep” being imposed on its members to show how they were benefiting the economy rather than institution they worked for.

Sean Flanigan (pictured), AUTM president since March and assistant director of technology partnerships for University of Ottawa, Canada, said in response to the survey results: “The growth of unfunded mandates – mission creep – on directors of tech transfer offices is the number one statement [of concern]. They have licensing down pat but are being asked ‘what else can you do?’ and adding an economic imperative to research and education goals. Graduating highly-educated people is these days not enough for alumni, administrators and politicians.”

Clear priorities, however, are hard to set unless it is obvious who the paymaster is, which has often meant the institution has been captured by the faculty who effectively veto or prevent change that might damage their interests.

But just as trade unions have been busted in other industries, change is underway for faculties at many hidebound universities.

Government funding remains of preeminent importance to many universities and research institutes, followed in varying order by student tuition fees, industry research dollars and philanthropy. Few universities outside of China have developed a business model of aligned interests with their students and faculty. However, with US university student debt of about $1 trillion, and rapidly rising in other countries, such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand, university venturing and work by non-profits and others using a human capital approach, such as 13th Avenue Funding and Lumni, offers this opportunity to realign interests between academia and those who pass through its (online or actual) doors.

By understanding why people want to attend the institution as faculty or students and then following and supporting their long-term progress, universities can better meet their needs. Currently, the system seems designed for universities to find multiple sources of funding, which all come with different conditions attached, to meet multiple goals.

But as the work of venture philanthropy organisation, such as Faster Cures showed at the TechTransfer Summit, by simplifying the problem down to “putting patients first” the systemic challenges leading to lack of research, funding, regulatory and payment routes and overall costs can be identified and then tackled.

Parts of the healthcare ecosystem, for example, want to identify “better, faster, cheaper” drugs, devices and diagnostic tools to cure or improve people’s quality of life. But while these parts are putting patients first, others are trying to work out their customer’s pain points and develop treatments that suit insurers, doctors or pharmacists’ interests.

For universities, their equivalent of “putting patients first” is to state whether they are really foremost about students, faculty research or economic development rather than a complicated and unclear mix of all three.