At the Pacific Northwest Economic Region conference in Portland a couple of weeks ago, I introduced the idea of a Make-Use Commons as a means of tying together research patent management and regional economic development.
Let’s work through this idea. The starting point is ordinary university technology transfer. This has been reduced to a simple story: research to inventions to patents to licenses to products to money and a good life for all.
This story is, in a sense, true. In another sense, it is sincerely repeated, even believed. But when it comes to understanding innovation, it is a narrative artifact. As I discussed with the history of Warfarin, the activities that lead to something new may be circuitous, even random. After the fact, once there is something “successful”, it is possible, even easy, to select out a few abstract elements that frame a narrative. Researchers invent, patents are licensed to industry, product on the market, success! So, more research funding will lead to more success!
It doesn’t add up. Maybe more research funding is needed. But maybe ” more” has nothing to do with it. “More” has almost no meaning, and comes to indicate how expensive research is, rather than that by more funding there are greater outcomes for all. Maybe more funding for folks outside of mainstream science. Maybe more funding that follows on to productive collaborations, without the collaborators having to beg for it. Advocating for “more” without clarity about where and how it is needed is not a good place to be.
For this discussion, the point is: the stories about innovation reduced to invention to patent to license to product to money are artifacts of how folks choose to compose narratives about innovation. They are of the genre of “and that’s all you need to know, you silly kid” kind of fairy tale. Innovation pathways, in their natural history, appear to take many courses and are rarely linear. Linear routes to innovation do happen. They are, however, a lousy exemplar by which to represent all routes, or even the most productive routes. Further, even if they are simple to remember, they are a lousy guide to future practice and to policy aiming to assist that practice.
In essence, the simple model says: “Take these simplistic instances of success and craft policy to make future innovation follow a simple linear route from bench to bedside, from lab to product. Make life conform to this simple expectation of life. In this way, things will be made efficient, orderly, and accountable. Now, who is capable of performing this efficient function the best? Is it not the university administration, allowing inventors to be free to continue their research without the distraction of the complexities of patenting, marketing, and licensing?”
If one accepts the simple narrative, and then drafts policy to make it so, then that policy and the sincere folks who see their task to serve it who work against the broader life of innovation in research and community. Their job is to bring order that serves a model, rather than to implement an approach that responds to diverse ways that innovation arises.
The simple narrative about research, invention, patents, and (products, jobs, money) is reasonable. It is true, in the sense that it is often possible to abstract any set of events leading to (products, jobs, money) to find patents, an invention, and research. The argument against the simple story is not that it is unreasonable, but rather that when used as a guide to practice has a profound and adverse effect on an innovation ecosystem connected to university research and instruction.
The effort to practice under the simple story leads to an accumulation model. Get a lot of inventions, get patents on many, shop them to industry, and some will land big deals. These big deals will sustain the whole program. Winners pay for losers. If the big deals aren’t in licensing, then get them as equity payouts to startups, or in litigation against infringers, or in cashing out a future revenue stream that may never happen, but someone thinks it will and is willing to pay for it.
Such an accumulation model is successful with a hit rate of no more than one or two big deals a decade. One every 20 years is enough. And that’s the reality of the model. It is really difficult to find licensees for research inventions, when put into the abstraction of the simple story. In fact, it is nearly impossible to have a patent right available, at just the right time in the development of the technology, with companies ready to invest, with a growing market, and willing to work with you and not others. It’s just darned unlikely. And it doesn’t get any better with more effort, more people, more “marketing”. The solution set for making a licensing match is just to small.
Instead of admitting this situation, however, technology transfer officers talk in financial terms, calling it a “funding gap”. With more money at just the right time in the model, right after patents are filed but before there is a monopoly commercial partner, there needs to be more money–a lot more money–and that will make the model work. No one says, “That’s a rotten model, find better ones.” Instead, they say, “we need more money to make this simple model work”. It turns out that the model does not appear to work better with more money, either.
It appears that one cannot create innovation by buying each bit, from research to market. While there is often a “funding gap”, the simple model of technology transfer, applied uniformly to research activity, has substantially deepened and widened it, and every dollar of public money that is allocated with the aspiration to help technology across the “valley of death” is a dollar that further rewards and entrenches the simple model, gives it political standing, and encourages those involved to double down to “make it work”. But they can’t. It won’t. It is what it is. A couple of deals a decade, for each university, with 1500 inventions per decade per institution held back for the prospects of the few. Multiply that across two hundred research institutions and we have dammed up since Bayh-Dole was passed 30 years ago nearly a million research-related inventions, embedded in uncertainty, bureaucracy, and a simple, reasonable model that manages to obtain sufficient financial success to sustain itself.
Talk about losing a million opportunities to innovate because the key research events were bound up in a practice that sequestered them in making the attempt to promote them, following the outlines of a simple, reasonable story.
Enough for now. I will fill out the story soon.
What is good for a portfolio, however, is not good for individual inventions or research programs. Every unlicensed invention is a barrier to practice elsewhere–in research, in economic development, in industry, in the do-it-yourself, do-it-with-others communities.