There is an elephant in the room during most discussions about how to commercialise academic inventions.
At the Tech Transfer Summit, hosted under Chatham House rules by the University of California San Francisco’s (UCSF) impressive new campus in Mission Bay, this elephant – how to engage industry – was noticed and tackled early rather than as an afterthought at the end of the event.
Co-chaired by Christian Suojanen and Morris Berrie, the summit asked a series of questions about how universities’ technology transfer offices (TTOs) could cope with declining public funding in the US. The sequester cutting public spending will knock about $1.55bn off the National Institutes of Health’s 2013 financial year budget, while Europe’s seven-year innovation budget of €69bn is large even for the 28 countries within the European Union but has been cut from a planned €80bn.
Most answers for healthcare lay with using the market, especially pharmaceutical companies, to find alternative sources of funding. This reaching out has come as big pharma companies are reaching out to universities and external entrepreneurs for ways to fill their early-stage gaps in the drugs pipeline – some estimates of 30% to 50% over the next few years – and lower attrition rates in developing treatments, which have been “unprecedentedly” high in the past decade.
The US’s National Science Foundation’s I-Corps programme forces researchers to assess the viability of commercializing their ideas by asking industry what they want to see and what they would pay for it.
The TTOs wanted to use corporations to commercialise their inventions but also provide money and personnel to translate basic research into work to help society. As one panelist said: “We see tech transfer as finding the public benefit, not about the money.”
This attitude is perhaps fortunate as many universities have seen little direct financial benefit from the technologies spun out. This has led some to look to alternative ways to reap rewards, with some relying on philanthropy and others giving their follow-on rights to later rounds of funding for spin-out companies to outside venture capital firms to potentially take up and avoid the stakes being diluted down.
This understanding of the longer-term requirements for a functioning intellectual property innovation engine augers well for both business and academia than what has been seen as university TTOs’ traditional focus on patenting and licensing technology once.
By bringing together entrepreneurial companies at a university science park, a powerful venture capital fund and TTOs that act as a service facilitating links rather than gatekeeper deciding on what passes outside the campus walls, the chances of improving the odds of just one in 10,000 inventions reaching the public are likely to improve even if it might still take 15 years and $1bn in funding for that to happen.
However, while both industry and academia recognize the benefits greater collaboration, the scale of the challenge remains immense and results for many have been disappointing.
The number of inventions at universities is growing dramatically as western universities strive to meet targets and institutions in emerging markets focus on improving the quality of their research and how they are commercialized. In addition, the number of potential routes to markets and interested parties, from government and non-profits through venture philanthropists to angels and venture capitalists and corporations, and the range of funding options, from grants to debt and equity, is also increasing, creating effectively too much choice and so-called analysis paralysis.
Meanwhile, team sizes and experience levels at many TTOs and academic liaison groups remain woefully low and cooperation between universities to bring together the IP to develop a product is often still nascent. This imperfect market for information enables some diligent investors to build relationships to find the “one or two gems” before others but is probably inefficient for a regional economic development strategy.
And this is the second elephant – 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? These discussions at the summit will form the basis of next week’s editorial and, along with this first discussion, our Global University Venturing Summit in Brussels on October 16.