I have been writing about my sense of perspective–something not possible in an infinite university, according to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Though I have worked at and for universities in technology transfer for a couple of decades, I am not presently employed by any university to do IP management work. I work with small companies doing interesting things, with entrepreneurs–from some of whom I get shocking details about university technology transfer behaviors–and with researchers aiming to do good things with discovery and public access.
Over the past ten years I have used this blog to document my work in the history of university IP policy and practices, the nature of innovation in the form of technology change, the particulars of university patent policies and their change over time, how universities account for their invention management activities, and for reasons that defy explanation, the history and effect of the Bayh-Dole Act.
I have done deals, made money, given stuff away, and never screwed up bad enough that my boss ever asked me to cut the ponytail. There was a letter of reprimand because we made a multi-million dollar deal after a big company’s mid-level managers blew us off and we executed our BATNA with their rival. “How dare you let our mid-level managers fail to make such an important decision!” wrote the company CEO to the university president. My boss hauled me and smiled. “You are hereby advised of your reprimand, and I hope you do a bunch more deals like this one.”
I have been involved with a range of professional groups around IP management, and the innovation working groups–in the Bay Area, BASIC, in southern California, LARTA, the National Governors Association, PNWER; SSTI, AAUP, UIDP. Alphabet soup organizations. Some really good people.
I have spent a decade studying history, metrics, economics, practices, propaganda, and politics of policy and law pertaining especially to university research and IP. I’d really like to know how things work, and especially how they might work, could work, if people only made the effort.
A senior administrator: “We own everything the faculty invent, even in the shower, but we don’t bother to tell them that. It just riles them up.” A faculty member: “I only work with you because your job is to make me rich.” Another faculty member: “I will only work with you if you guarantee me that I will never have to accept a single dime in royalties–I will not make presentations at scientific conferences with everyone in the audience thinking that I am merely presenting my findings to promote my invention.”
I remember the faculty member who sadly told me that his career’s research was tied up in the failed startup to which his university had licensed exclusively, so he had to decline many offers from industry to collaborate on further research. I remember the dean of engineering who, having complained about the director of technology transfer at his university–one of the best people in the business, as far as I am concerned–said, “I want my faculty talking to the best.” “And who are those?” I asked. “You know, rich, powerful people. The director isn’t rich or powerful like that. My faculty shouldn’t waste time with him.”
The senior staff programmer said, “Pay attention, listen to me, this could be valuable.” So I deleted the $600,000 royalty cap in the company counteroffer. Weathered the storm as the CEO complained to the university president about how awful I was. We ended up with $10m or so over the next decade. I never thought it would be that much. I told a staff scientist, “Pay attention, listen to me, this could be valuable” and watched then, in an introductory meeting with a company, as the scientist blurted out “I don’t care if you offer me even $10,000.” The company, I am sure, was prepared to offer 10x or more than that, but decided the opportunity was too small after all, and perhaps too given to hysteria.
A grad student said, “I don’t care that the faculty member that recruited me here just started a company and cut me out–but I do care that I just lost my dissertation advisor.” Another time, a grad student sat patiently while her advisor worked out the financial arrangements for royalty sharing–for the advisor, and after the busy advisor had left, turned to me and asked, completely reasonably, “what about me?”
“How long did you work in industry before going to the university?” “Well, not really ever. But I am always working to understand how industry sees things.” (And later, I did work for a while at a startup–even got paid.)
The CEO of one small company threatened to sue me over a research arrangement in which we had done everything right–“I like to threaten to sue because it makes my company look like a fighter to my investors.” Okay. I said a few carefully chosen words on a conference call with a company’s legal, technical, and marketing reps all on together, and watching the discussion descend into a fight among them until they decided it was better to take their problem outside the phone system. Who among them would win? Who needed to come out looking good for engaging the university? Even small companies are no monoliths–personalities and individual directions are often in play, the place of anything from a university in doubt–avoid, design around, get for free, replace as soon as possible.
I flew for a few hours in the seat next to the research director for a major tech firm. We got to talking. “You know,” he said, “it really doesn’t matter what patents are out there or even if they are free. What matters is that when I need something, it’s there for me. I am not going to read through hundreds of patents and articles looking for something I need.” I later I flew with the most wonderful patent troll. He managed a portfolio of videodisk patents. “I am deeply committed to the success of Sony,” he said. “Since after payroll we are their next biggest expense. To remind them of how much we value them, we have office space across the street from their headquarters, so they can see us every day.”
When I write articles here at Research Enterprise, you may find mistakes–I do my best to check my work–and you may have other ideas–good. At least you can check things for yourself. I snark but I don’t bluff. It’s not worth discussing policy without different perspectives, even opposing views. But bullshit–popping off without any regard for the truth–is a waste of time. I don’t go after Bayh-Dole or university administrators or the bluffing front groups lightly. They may think that their private fantasy truth is more important for the public good than what is out there to observe, what happens in practice. And they don’t expect anyone to challenge their bluffing. They want practice to imitate their fantasy. Call it the Strictly Ballroom problem. Call it the bozonet fueled by Dunning Kruger effects.
I’ve paid my dues. There are better ways to doing things. Heck, no policy and no bureaucrats is often way more better at “unleashing innovation” than anything our friendly NISTwits can come up with. But NIST removing itself from federal patent policy to “unleash innovation” is not on the table, is it? The status quo wants improvement, but only improvement that improves those that ride the status quo.
Research enterprise is valuable enough that it is worth working through the issues to get things right, or at least way better than they are now. So I observe, reason, work on IP projects, write with snark. Thanks for reading!