Two Yesses

The idea of innovation is complicated. Benoît Godin has shown in a series of articles that innovation until the last hundred years or so has been a derogatory term.  No one wanted to be called an innovator. Then in science, there were innovations that folks just had to deal with. One after another. Then the we see consumer products labeled innovative by the 1940s. Then the policy folks got ahold of it, and the term takes on its recent spin.

When we move from innovation as something that stands outside the status quo, or creates separation from it, to how to make money on innovation (which is what most university patent administrators think of, and are rewarded for), we see that patent licensing for monopoly investment easily slips into service to the status quo. I know one university patent administrator who quit, saying it was no longer rewarding to offer licenses to inventions to big companies, only to be beaten around about it. Just offering gifts for the status quo, and being scorned for it. I know the feeling.

And all the scramble now about Bayh-Dole is how to make those gifts more expeditious, and perhaps, if the price is really low once title is absolute, maybe the status quo won’t be so scornful and money will flow. Innovation in innovation management ought not be how to be more servile to the status quo, even if that is where some folks think the money is. Oh, and universities suing big companies for patent infringement is just one big giant suck up to the status quo. For all that, if the university has no licensees, and the invention is federally funded, then it should be a violation of Bayh-Dole for a university to sue for infringement. Perhaps it is!

What’s interesting is a piece by Terry Eagleton in The Guardian on “The death of universities,” which carries the tag line “Academia has become a servant of the status quo.  Its malaise runs so much deeper than tuition fees.” The piece works over the separation between the humanities and professional studies such as law and engineering. With the government looking to undo university humanities funding, no wonder a humanist like Eagleton would be concerned.

The comments stream to the piece seems to agree that lawyers and engineers could use some history and literature, but also thinks the humanities are watered down tripe and the times cry out for engineers and lawyers.

Eagleton doesn’t do much with his title or tag point, however. That is, to what extent are universities in the service of the status quo, and how bad is that anyway? I mention it only because I see university technology transfer so deeply committed to commercialization, market value, product-making, and all things business for value that I expect they would say: of course we serve the status quo, but only the most powerful elements of the status quo, those elements that lead change and thereby make money for our programs.

Now, I’m not interested in casting things in terms of capitalism or even worrying over making money, as money is a fine social institution that we seem to have need to have around. But even if making money from tuition and fees of all sorts is what a university feels it must be doing as it slides away from public goodwill and imagination, is making money from licensing inventions what a university should be doing? Even if a university is an economic engine, is it a *better one* by hiring business folks to try to do that *directly* with programs that suck up to the status quo?

It’s like the universities are trying to take a shortcut. The university does these instructional and research things, and by doing those things really well, good things appear to happen in the regional economy. Why then is there this administrative jump to try to do those good things *directly*? If folks are starting companies because the instruction and research is really inspiring and helpful, then is the response: *why not start more and more and more and more companies?!* Why not start so many companies that you have to have your own seed funds to do it because the private sector just can’t keep up! Start them, love them, and leave them. Because we all know that an economy is *thriving* when there are tons of startups. Is that it, create and count startups and the economy has to be good? Just look at those numbers, man!

Isn’t there something just stupid wrong about this? And yet, it is being professionalized and has enough money to hire lawyers to put a sheen on it.

What if there aren’t any administratively controlled shortcuts to “innovation”? What if a university shouldn’t suck up to the status quo, and shouldn’t in the alternative be an evil base to launch attacks against it? What if technology transfer is properly an outreach activity that is rooted–get this–in the humanities? What if, instead of rushing the proverbial trough with one’s venture capital buddies under the flag of commercialization, technology transfer was about instruction to community audiences that want or ought to learn what cool things were going on in research settings?

Then an invention would be a research event among others, one sort of epiphany that comes with inquiry. Then delight really could be an indicator of future value. Technology transfer would aim to communicate that delight. Anything that can’t do that, well, make it a deliverable to the government.

The questions one might ask university investigators:

1) Are you happy with your realization?
2) Are you happier now that the university owns it?

Two yesses and we are working with a healthy university technology transfer program.

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