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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 1.3 (2003) 277-278

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Notes from the Field

Ashley J. Stevens

In his keynote speech to the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), the late and much-lamented Michael Hooker, Chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, brought the house down when he told the 1,000 or so academic technology transfer officers assembled: "Go back to your universities and tell your Chancellors, your Presidents and your Provosts, I said to tell them you're doing God's work." This may be the last recorded occasion in which someone of stature, whom we would all respect, has complimented technology transfer managers in public.

Why is our profession so misunderstood? After all, we all agree with Chancellor Hooker that we are doing God's work. We feel the facts bear us out. Royalty income to U.S. universities, research institutes, and hospitals in fiscal year 2001 was $1.15 billion, contributing not only to discretionary funds of universities, but to the U.S. economy as a whole because it implies an economic impact of $40 to $50 billion on the U.S. economy as well as 250,000 to 300,000 jobs derived from academic licenses. In addition, there was a total tax take of around $10 billion to federal, state, and local governments. Universities, hospitals, and research institutes received a further $250 million in industrial research support in return for access to intellectual property via licenses or options, 9% of all industrially sponsored research. Since 1980, 3,870 companies have been formed based on licenses to academic intellectual property, of which 84% are located in the home state of the institution where the intellectual property was created, and of which 63% are still operational. Since 1998, 1,215 products have been launched based on academic licenses.

A pretty stellar record of success, by most people's reckoning. However, the technology transfer profession is under a constant barrage of attacks from academics who, on the one hand, somehow worry that academic freedoms are being sold out, to politicians who have blamed the Bayh-Dole Act (the legislation that empowered academic technology transfer) for soaring drug prices (but not, strangely, for soaring life expectancy).

I, therefore, tend to categorize papers on technology transfer into either "for us" or "against us." Sobol and Newell's paper is neither; rather, [End Page 277] it is an honest attempt to illustrate both the importance of the subject and the difficulties of the profession.

Their section on the tension between patenting and publishing relies on an article published in 1994, and needs to be updated in light of the Provisional Patent Application which has been available since 1995 and allows instant patenting of papers. The section of the paper on metrics is good, although their insistence on normalizing the metrics they examine to the institution's research expenditures propels some schools with only a minor presence in technology transfer to the top of the rankings, so caution in interpretation is needed. The section on innovative models is good, although it only really impacts the periphery of the profession. They identify the need for gap funding, which appears to have increased in the past few years—the markets we address are moving targets, constantly changing. The high-technology meltdown and venture capital nuclear winter of the last three years have made it harder than ever to get other people to take up our ideas and visions and run with them, and gap funding is now one of our burning issues.

So, why is our profession so misunderstood? I believe a major factor is that we are neither fish nor fowl on many levels. We fall firmly in the administrative camp, yet most directors of technology transfer are not career academic administrators, but instead have come into the field from an industrial career. This profession is about building bridges between academia and industry, and that takes someone who understands industry by having stood in industry's shoes.

Ashley Stevens is the director of the Office of Technology...


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