Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Commercializing University Research in Diverse Settings: Moving beyond Standardized Intellectual Property Management: More Flexible Approaches to IP Management Can Help Find a Path to Market for Technologies That Don't Fit Standard Strategies

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Commercializing University Research in Diverse Settings: Moving beyond Standardized Intellectual Property Management: More Flexible Approaches to IP Management Can Help Find a Path to Market for Technologies That Don't Fit Standard Strategies

Article excerpt

University research has long been recognized as a major source of potentially useful knowledge (Foley 2012; Martin 2007). Much of that knowledge has made its way into the commercial market, mostly through technology transfer offices (TTOs). For example, in 2005, US universities generated $40 billion in economic activity, creating 628 startups and 4,932 licenses (Martin 2007), and in 2012, the AUTM Licensing Activity Survey (2012) identified 705 startup companies and 5,130 licenses originating from technology invented at US universities.

However, although university-originated intellectual property (IP) has been successfully diffused in some industries--for example, the biomedical, chemistry, and electronics sectors (Cohen et al. 2000; Mowery 2011)--other applications are often inadequately served because they require management approaches that do not fit the "standard" strategies employed by TTOs. Understaffed and burdened with conflicting mandates, many TTOs pursue strategies focused on profit appropriation through legal mechanisms and control of key resources (Di Minin and Faems 2013; Hanel 2006; Teece 1986). Under this approach, new technologies must be patented or protected by some other legal mechanism before they can be considered for further development and commercialization. Although this kind of standard IP management approach may provide efficiencies for TTOs, they are not suitable for many others. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that TTOs often lack the resources to proactively search for potential users beyond those industries that actively seek them out. They have much less flexibility to pursue alternative arrangements than their private-sector counterparts (Burnside and Witkin 2008), and they often lack the capabilities to develop the diverse inventions originating from their many faculties in ways that facilitate diverse applications (Martin 2007). Furthermore, as Foley (2012, 13) has noted, TTOs are increasingly under pressure to be self-supporting, an unrealistic goal given that "at no time in the last 30 years has this happened."

Open innovation may offer one avenue to improved commercialization of university research, but TTOs' focus on inventions that fit standardized IP management policies may thwart open innovation by restricting communication between internal and external entities and by introducing excessive bureaucracy into the process. Such restrictions both limit opportunities for productive sharing and undermine the legitimacy of the technology, reducing the likelihood that it will be commercialized or widely adopted.

Open innovation approaches can be particularly useful in moving technology off the shelf, where the potential user community is small, fragmented, or not well connected to university research sources. We illustrate this point with four examples. The first, a pathogen detection technology, would have as its most likely primary users government forestry regulators charged with preserving the health of a nation's forests. Although the technology is well defined and well developed, commercialization is complicated both by concerns about its patentability and by the unusual nature of the user base. The other examples draw on a research project developing biocatalysts for transforming lignin to be used as an alternative to petroleum in the production of vanillin, resins, and carbon fibers, illustrating the challenges presented by technologies that may have multiple applications, which require researchers and TTOs to engage with multiple industries that have varying motivations and resources for technology adoption. The particular circumstances of each of these examples illustrate how different industrial settings may call for specific IP strategies, including open innovation approaches, which may not align with typical TTO policies.

The Trade-Offs of Standardized IP Management Practices

Somaya et al. (2011) and Teece (1986) suggest that gamering the economic benefits of innovation requires rigid IP protection and industry-specific complementary assets, such as manufacturing facilities, complementary technologies, distribution channels, and service infrastructures. …

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