University Brand "Commercialization"

Some university technology administrators are adopting the idea that the crowning outcome of public research is commercial money-making. This idea is wrapped around a shift in vocabulary from “technology transfer” to “technology licensing” to “commercialization.” These are very different concepts. But in the hands of the bozonet, they are all the same thing–meaning, I guess, the concepts mean next to nothing (see Frankfurt, again, for the details–here).

Technology transfer means the new development of the capabilities needed to practice a technology (a means of accomplishing some practical thing, a “useful art”). A technology is transferred when someone new is using a technology that someone else knows. This could be from an established use in one industry to a new use in another, or from a developed country to a developing country, or from a lab to practice. There is nothing in technology transfer that requires company formation, commercial products, or even licensing of rights. These things may come along for the ride, but they are not front and center and certainly are not essential. Technology transfer is challenging, worthy, and not an unqualified public good.

Technology licensing has to do with rights and permissions. The value of the transaction is in the license contract, not in the broader relationships and creativity by which something is taught, or demonstrated, or figured out (which we call “engagement”). Licensing shifts the emphasis from utility to arbitrage of rights. The issues become legal, as the value play (and risk play) revolve around the formation of a contract. There may be social value as well, but it is not formally tracked (AUTM, for instance, has no way to ascertain social implications of licensing, so creates fuzzy story reports instead, leaving the “hard” numbers for the “bottom liners”). Only so many folks have the capability of signing up for a royalty bearing license, which typically requires the creation of commercial product to be sold in a marketplace, the bigger such a market, the better. Much of university technology licensing is devoted by policy, and by practice, and by personal fixation, to chasing licensing money.

Commercialization, then, offers a strange twist on licensing and technology transfer. At its broadest, commercialization means turning something–anything–into a product to be sold in a market. Whatever is going on, “commercialization” formalizes it as a money-making venture. Why teach others when you could hold back the IP, get investors to make a product, and sell it to the hungry masses instead? The funding gap is often the distance between what one could and should be doing on the one hand and on the other trying to make a commercial product of it instead.

I’m all for money-making ventures. I just don’t see them as the default anchor point for university research. Why should each research outcome or finding be referenced first (or only) to the potential for it to make a lot of money for the university if turned into the form of a commercial product or service? When did commercialization step in the door as the most desired outcome?

At least licensing still tracks IP that one has obtained from research. That is, licensing follows research. Commercialization gives up on this as too confining. Commercialization is about creating money positions based on product creation any way one can. While research IP continues to be part of such a portfolio (bureauklepts being what they are), commercialization also includes starting companies based on business ideas that don’t have a basis in research IP. The idea is to get rich however one can, using economic development and entrepreneurship as the calling cards.

Economic development and entrepreneurship are worthy practices. The question is whether universities led by administrators with faculty in tow as compulsed inventors should be the ones doing these things. One might think universities’ role should be to support these efforts, not to co-opt them. Some day we should thrash this bit out. For now, note that commercialization in the hands of university administrators means “put your resources into making money any way you can using IP, licenses, or start ups.”

Technology transfer is a worthy goal for a research university–labs should be sufficiently available that others learn from them how they do their research, what they have discovered, and how one might use and develop both tools and discoveries. Technology transfer is instruction, engagement, empowerment, not just a bipolar choice between distraction and wealth. The fundamental claim of technology transfer is: remember that your research does not exist solely to advance your own career or the status of your lab, but rather exists so that others benefit.

Technology licensing is more difficult. Bayh-Dole says: use the patent system to promote the use of federally supported inventions. Bayh-Dole doesn’t say, try to make a shit-load of money by beating up industry with your patent rights. Bayh-Dole doesn’t even pitch royalty-bearing licenses as a primary activity, and barely mentions commercialization (there, meaning creation of products from research IP). One could license research IP using public licenses–non-exclusive, on reasonable terms, perhaps at no charge and accepting no risk. But we don’t see universities doing that. Even if one wanted to make money, there is a general, nearly ubiquitous, fixation on making money in the license, rather than from other things that arise for a technology and its IP being broadly and easily available, such as workshops, research grants, consulting, and support.

University brand “commercialization” is the rotter in the bunch. It’s not focused on research output. It plays across expertise, insight, and business opportunity. Research findings end up as too arcane. Research IP is too slow and difficult. The idea is, use the reputation of the university, and the relative availability of faculty and students, to push ideas for commercial products into venture capital markets.

University commercialization slips from research findings and IP to random opportunism–follow the venture money and shop ideas. It’s so easy any shill can do it. But what’s the point of the lead shills being university administrators? With all due respect, does that really have success written all over it? Even if one *does* get some deal flow this way, what happens to the research outputs that are sequestered but not part of the deal flow?

University brand commercialization misses the importance of research IP moving into platform environments, where it becomes the tools, the ad hoc standards, and the shared environment for future research and future innovation. Most research findings and tools are not going to be the foundation for a new business or a commercial product, especially not a big hit make a pile product. But access to these findings and tools is critical. When a “technology transfer” office–no, uh, a “technology licensing” office–oops, I mean a trendy, cutting-edge “commercialization” office–starts to stockpile all the research IP and fans out to look for those lucre-quenching ideas that must just be lolling around faculty and grad student skulls, then perhaps we are beyond service to the public.

It would be understandable if that part of the public that supported universities based on instruction, public science, and a degree of independence from corporate mores simply walked away when they saw senior administration turn to “commercialization” as the primary metric of public research. I suspect that most faculty don’t accept “commercialization” as the primary estimator of their research impact, aren’t lazy and ignorant as a result of this refusal, and do not feel the need to “change their culture” so that they become hucksters for product-forming commercial habits. It makes no sense to force everyone in a university to participate in “commercialization” efforts via IP policy or a single IP office. It’s the shallowest implementation of Bayh-Dole yet.

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