Social Media in Tech Transfer

I don’t quite know how to write this. Piscopo version at the end.

The key thing about social media is that it is social. That’s more than advertising and self-promotion, though both are of course in their own way part of “social”. Just that they are bits of social and not the whole thing or the most important thing. Social means engaging people as people not objects or abstractions or pawns, though of course all of this comes into social, too. Social means reciprocity, not just hunting and dragging spoils back to the den already soiled by the pups, though again all this is also a bit of social. Social means being interested in others, and in themes developed by others, not just in trying to be interesting, a center of attention, the loudest singing voice in the congregation, though, yeah, that’s a part of being social, too.

Media is a way of trying to develop out these human activities within the context of technology, which we’ve been doing since fire, wheels, drums, and rock painting. It’s just that the impulse to formalize this activity as “marketing” and by that meaning “promotion” and within that meaning “how do I find people willing to pay me for my patents?” is only a tiny bit of what folks want in their view of being social (I know, you have to ask them about this, but I think you’ll find they prefer not to have each daily thought intruded upon by someone with their pants full of advertising, now using new media).

When I see some discussion of how one responds to that twitter feed, or comments placed on a web site, or when one places useful comments on other web sites, and isn’t just being the huckster, then I think, that’s cool, people are engaged. About the dullest, saddest thing is to see YouTube videos on technology that are the same smiley fluff one sees in annual reports. At least give us Downfall parodies.

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Put it another way. Some folks are committed to the conventional model of university tech transfer. That’s okay. I’m fine with it. Live long and prosper. It’s a seductive model. Simple enough to be understood even by the most inveterate slumlording university administrator. Invention disclosed, office reviewed, ownership obtained, patents filed, marketing, licensing, royalties. Call it “commercialization”. If the discussion is how to improve the marketing part of this model, well, I think that’s okay. I won’t speak against it. Lotsa luck. Literally. The numbers aren’t with you after 30 years, and it’s not going to magically come unstuck. Commercialization as a primary approach to IP is, for universities, a political, social, and research dead end. It’s not the primary objective of Bayh-Dole. It’s not a meaningful mission within academic norms, and it is ill suited to university administration. That said, go ahead and try.

Let’s talk ROI. You have a 1% proposition for what you claim are the outcomes, and that’s best practice. Try all the social media you want. You really think it might double your productivity? So the 1% proposition is now 2%? Well, that might be great for the financial condition of the portfolio taken as a whole–that means, you make enough money to quench the lucre lust of administrators and keep your office funded.

But for the thousands of research teams working to build relationships and compete for leadership positions, for research inventors looking to work their own breakthrough networks, small companies looking to partner, large companies looking to manage science in the context of their own IP strategies (which often do not include trying to become the next monopolist with someone else’s bits of IP), and for communities looking to develop their economies and quality of life through technology decisions–for these, the simple, seductive model operating at 1% or 2% or even 5% is living hell. It is poisonous. It is a pretty poisonous frog, and marketing is that part of making the poison pretty.

Marketing also then becomes the defensive posture that seeks to explain why all criticisms of the model are bitter, isolated attacks and why better “training” and more “resources” and more money in “gap funds” and better behaviors by industry in the form of “innovative capacity” and “good faith negotiation” would make the model “work”. The model itself is not poisonous. The practice of extending the model from what it does well to everything is poisonous. The practice of making participation in the model compulsory is poisonous. The attempt to operate technology transfer offices as set processes made to appear orderly for the sake of appeasing university administrators is poisonous. This kind of stuff won’t be fixed by better “marketing”. Fix as in “cat” not “car”. Take as your IP policy: “don’t be poisonous”.

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One more try, for those who have made it this far. The alarmist version.

The idea that an “office” is interposed between research teams and their communities, that patents become a dominant asset among all the others in conveying research results, and that this office in accumulating patents represents itself as an agent for each inventor across all areas of research, for all industries, for all investment environments, for all operating models just doesn’t hold up. It doesn’t scale. It can’t scale. One ends up with a front-end story about marketing each and every invention for its own special potential but in practice working a portfolio model for maybe 20 inventions a decade. The rest “lack commercial potential”. But more nearly, the rest “should have been handled in a different manner.” And more clearly: “the model only works when it is highly selective”. And yet again: “the model doesn’t work for the vast majority of research assets, including inventive assets, and it’s poisonous that technology transfer offices are pushing for more control over research assets rather than less–poisonous not only for the research community, but for the success of Bayh-Dole, and for the success of the conventional model itself.”

The conventional model has had nearly a hundred year run. It dates to Research Corporation. WARF made that model provincial, tied to a single campus, but still an independent operation. A number of university faculty followed that model and created research foundations. The internal offices and the capture of external foundations after Bayh-Dole by university administrations have introduced changes that in the name of efficiency and process and orderliness and convenience and simplicity have had a really bad effect on university-industry relationships, on access by small companies, on start up initiatives (even while promoting start ups!), and on the community uptake of scholarship having inventive components.

The comeback that I lack “data” for this claim is itself part of the poison. O Priests of Baal! (no offense to Baal–as used here it’s a literary allusion ). Just look at the numbers in context, see the backstory structure of the portfolios these offices are reporting. It’s glaringly obvious. Even the research community in talking among themselves tend to “get it”. It’s not that they can do “better” with this same model–it’s just that they have a heck of a lot of other things to do with the same research asset base, and the “offices” are not in any sort of position to help them with those other things. The offices could be, if they restructured, converted, extended, apologized, advocated, and learned. But not the way they are presently set up via policy, via assumptions about innovation, via assumptions about patents, via assumptions about financials, via practices. It may be the train has already left the station. AUTM certainly behaves as if this is true (no offense to AUTM–it’s just someone has to play the role of loyal opposition).

So what I write about the model can be represented as unhelpful, obstructionist, foolish. Only smart MBA like folks with a “more like a business” attitude can drive that train, apparently. But I say it’s heading for a wreck, and it’s a wreck of the universities’ own making. I don’t have any delight in that wreck, but I’d say it’s less than five years out, and the folks trying to license research patents to the first available monopolist that shows up and who have not been clear, or honest, with their own research community or with senior administrators, will have run this train off the tracks. No amount of “spin” or “marketing” to get people on board the train, or support its effort to increase speed, or celebrate its apparent “successes” will save it. It is a patent aggregation model generally lacking the resources or position to attack industry and investors as it should to maximize its financial success, and lacking the resources or position to develop sufficiently valuable gifts for the status quo to be rewarded as it desires, with royalty bearing licenses. Social media won’t save this marketing effort. The model is flawed because it is over-extended, superficially generalized, and compared with being “corporate”. And that is what will kill off even the workable, decent parts of it.

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Translated into piscopo.

Social media!
Very social!
Get a life!
Marketeers!
Simplistic model!
Poison frog!
Priests of Baal!
Selectivity!
Alternatives!
Danger train!
Epic fail!
Change or die!

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