A new journal article by a senior licensing associate in the University of Iowa Research Foundation (UIRF) argues that academic tech transfer activities contribute enormously to society and the economy, and that diminishing funding of those efforts jeopardize U.S. dominance in research-based discovery and innovation.

Writing in the June 2019 issue of les Nouvelles, the journal of the Licensing Executives Society International, Mihaela D. Bojin, Ph.D. says in “Academia and Technology Transfer in the U.S.” that from 1996 to 2015 technology transfer (taking ideas from the lab out into the marketplace) contributed more than $1.3 trillion to the U.S. gross industrial output and resulted in millions of new jobs. [The journal is available online but requires a subscription; an abstract is available here.]

Mihaela Bojin
“During the past 25 years, more than 400,000 inventions have been disclosed to over 200 academic technology transfer offices across the U.S., resulting in approximately 80,000 patents,” Bojin writes. “In 2017, for example, universities and research institutions executed about 8,000 license and option agreements and contributed to the creation of 755 products.”

She says the groundbreaking technologies created at universities range from life-saving therapeutics and medical devices, materials, the computer, the internet, and GPS, to 3-D printing, genome editing, artificial intelligence and more.

Her paper examines four factors that contribute to, and support, U.S. tech transfer success:

  1. the unique mission and approach of technology transfer offices (like the UIRF);
  2. a tradition of support for research and development from the federal government and industry;
  3. an established culture of and incentives for entrepreneurship; and
  4. a robust and engaged private sector that can absorb and translate a diverse and vast pool of discoveries into products.

Bojin writes that basic research is both uncertain and expensive, which largely disincentivizes the private sector from engaging in it. University faculty and staff, on the other hand, dedicate their lives to such work because they’re passionate about it and because, in the long tradition of universities (particularly public institutions), there’s a desire to find ways to better society.

“Most of these daring research projects are not ready for commercialization for years, sometimes decades, and they are pursued on shoe-string budgets from internal university seed funds,” she says. “These projects shatter norms and push technologies in directions not traveled before. The universities’ tolerance for ambitious, lengthy projects is an essential ingredient for the type of innovation that requires time and resources to mature into the technology of tomorrow.”

Financial support is imperative to fuel research and discovery, and in 2018 an estimated $78 billion was invested in academic research in the United States: about $40 billion from the federal government, $20 billion from universities’ internal funding mechanisms, and $6 billion from industry. So, too, is the framework that allows universities to own intellectual property, particularly since Congress enacted the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980.

Central to navigating partnerships between universities and the private sector are tech transfer offices, or TTOs, like the UIRF. These act as liaisons between universities or research institutions and industry.

“They take assignment of university IP (intellectual property) through institutional policy, often with a mission to bring discoveries to market,” Bojin writes. “These offices support a variety of functions, from technology evaluation, IP protection … accounting, marketing, negotiation and drafting of a variety of contracts, such as licenses, options, confidentiality agreements, material transfer agreements, joint development, inter-institutional agreements, etc.”

UIRF Executive Director Marie Kerbeshian points to the importance of this liaison role at the UI. 

“As we facilitate collaborations between our UI researchers and industry, we make sure to support our researchers and their academic and scholarly work while at the same time we enable our corporate partners to bring UI-invented technologies to market,” Kerbeshian said. “A good technology transfer office helps everyone protect academic freedom and comply with regulatory requirements in a way to promote, not hamper, commercialization.”

Bojin concludes that while university-based tech transfer remains strong, there are growing challenges to the “benchtop to bedside” enterprise, most notably stiffer competition from abroad and an erosion of federal funding. For example, the National Institutes of Health’s budget decreased from $33 billion in 2017 to $26 billion in 2018.

“Sobering recent data indicates that the competitive advantage of U.S. companies is diminishing because emerging Asian economies, particularly China, are heavily investing in developing their own innovative landscapes,” she writes. “There are also concerning signs about the future of governmental support for technology transfer.”

She says the overall federal R&D budget relative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been in decline for more than 50 years, falling from nearly 2 percent of GDP in 1965 to 0.7 percent of GDP in 2010.

“A deterioration of reliable, steady investments in intellectual capital at U.S. universities can lead to a loss of leadership and competitiveness,” she writes. ““Continuous support will be needed to ensure that the U.S. retains its reign.”

The University of Iowa Research Foundation is part the University of Iowa Office of the Vice President for Research provides researchers and scholars with resources, guidance, and inspiration to secure funding, collaborate, innovate, and forge frontiers of discovery that benefit everyone. More at http://research.uiowa.edu, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover