A Quora answer links to a Youtube video about the Battle of Alesia, which took place in 52 BC between the Romans and Gauls. The video examines Julius Caeser’s strategy in defeating a larger army with a better position in the field. The video ends with a discussion of Caesar’s way of thinking about achieving victory.

Here–you can watch it if you want.

Here’s the key thought–Caeser’s thinking vs conventional thinking.


The “frivolities” of strategy involve things that can be prepared in advance–formations, maneuvers, procedures. For these, think “policies and processes.” But for Caeser, victory lay in finding advantages available in the moment–getting the enemy tired, or put the sun in their eyes, or make them fight without breakfast. That is, opportunism.

He would take a situation and squeeze every conceivable advantage out of it until there was nothing left.

Now, look at how most universities go about this thing they call “technology transfer.” What do they do? They write policies, as if policies will transfer technology or make transfer happen better, faster, more effectively, more efficiently. And they create procedures and whole offices devoted to following those procedures (when it suits them). Exceptions to the procedures require layers of request and approval, and which cannot be traversed repeatedly because to do so would constitute a defacto change in policy. In other words, just the opposite of seeking advantage in the moment, just the opposite of opportunism. In a word, frivolities.

The “complexities” of technology transfer that university administrators complain about are almost all created by administrators seeking to make their frivolous policies and procedures work “efficiently.” Their idea of improving technology transfer involves reorganizations and name changes and appeals for funding and policy revisions. These are all things that rely on what administrators expect is *common* to the technologies they anticipate taking control of. But the common elements–forms of intellectual property, readily produced “non-confidential” descriptions, patent applications, standard terms for exclusive licenses, a procedure for turning an exclusive license into a non-exclusive license by adding “non-” everywhere “exclusive” shows up–are also the banal elements, frivolities, the things least likely to provide an advantage, the things that cannot possibly involve opportunism.

What are the opportunistic things? These are generally not the common elements among the various technologies the administrators have taken control over. It’s not that these technologies are “inventions” or are “patentable” or are thought to have “commercial value.” Uncommon elements are things like a love affair between an inventor and a company scientist, an articulate graduate student, a long-standing relationship with an interested company, a celebrity that happens to be related to an engineering librarian, a reporter who shows up to do a story on 3d printing, a lab web site that has become suddenly popular, the prospect for forming an ad hoc standard in the research community.

None of such uncommon things is ever going to be the subject of university technology transfer policy. Administrative committees do not meet to create a procedure for the expedited transfer of technology in the case of love affairs, with the idea of promoting more love affairs as a means to transfer technology. Thus, they do not create policies that promote taking advantage of opportunities. Instead, they create policies for mediocre technologies–the inventions and whatnot in the middle–for the common attributes of new things, for the things they can imagine, not for the things that are exceptional, so new that they are beyond the ordinary ken of committee members, with oppotunities that could not be anticipated. In so doing, administrators create policies that suppress opportunism in favor of procedures–frivolities. If a technology and its developers do not fit policy, then they must be reshaped until they do. Stuff that is not inventive must be treated as if it is inventive. Stuff that doesn’t have strong IP positions must be treated in the same manner as the stuff that does.

The very idea of a university policy on intellectual property or technology transfer smacks of suppression of opportunities and advantages. The implicit belief that runs throughout such policy is that only by making an activity regular, consistent, expectable can it be properly managed by university personnel. Anything opportunistic would be “unfair” and “inequitable.” Yes, I’ve seen this argument in the wild. If you spend more effort on technology A than technology B, then you are depriving the developers of technology B of equal treatment. If you release technology A from compliance with a crappy policy but not technology B, then the developers of technology A have an unfair advantage.

Do you see how pernicious such thinking is? Administrators have things backwards. It is not whether some action is “fair” within the definitions and requirements of policy, but whether the advantages–the opportunism–might lead to the transfer, the adoption, the use of something new.

In this policy-free approach, policy serves primarily to restrict bureaucratic encroachment into what necessarily must be opportunistic if it is to succeed at all. If the purpose of policy is to “protect” the university from opportunism, then the conclusion must be not better more restrictive policies, but rather that the technology and its opportunities must be kept outside the university’s control whenever there is any advantage for doing so. Only if the advantage that matters lies in something new coming within the university should the university consider doing so. This is completely alien to the IP policies at most universities, which claim ownership upfront of nearly everything and stipulate a policy that demands frivolities and mediocrity rather than advantage and opportunism. No matter how dedicated and diligent and trained anyone is to follow such policies and procedures, it is nearly impossible for anything to come from their efforts. Innovation grows in opportunism, not bureaucratic repetition. Even a policy that allows exceptions and waivers makes the exceptional case work against the expectation of mediocrity–“prove that this new technology deserves to be treated differently than all the rest and show why doing so is not unfair to all the rest.”

One more thing about Caesar at the Battle of Alesia–

and then as with the Battle of Alesia he would roll the dice

The idea that one might take a flyer on a strategy sends shudders through the administrative mind. No, according to the standard administrative model, technology transfer is a process. Here, look:


If technology transfer is not merely a wheel, then it’s a flow chart, and if really sophisticated then the arrows or boxes have color. There’s not a university out there that has a diagram of technology transfer that says, “Gosh, we have no idea what might happen until we have something in hand, grab advantages of opportunity, and roll the dice.” No, people instead dutifully imagine the future as a flow diagram, a process. It’s like the process for buying a winning lottery ticket or winning a sports championship or living a happy life. It’s not a process at all.

Consider, then, a university policy on IP and technology transfer like this:

If you make anything new, be opportunistic, seek advantages, and if it turns out that there’s an advantage involving the university, talk to our folks in the IP office. If they get involved, they will maximize their advantages and roll the dice. Otherwise, get to it yourself. Best of success!

Much more follows from this start. It is all workable. And it is entirely opposite to the dominant administrative approach to university IP and research enterprise that we have, mostly, now.


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1 Response to Opportunism

  1. Jeff says:

    I think most European research universities have the preferred policy (“If you make anything new, be opportunistic, seek advantages, and if it turns out that there’s an advantage involving the university, talk to our folks in the IP office. If they get involved, they will maximize their advantages and roll the dice. Otherwise, get to it yourself. Best of success!”). The problem is the US research university administration trying to justify their existence off Bayh Dole.

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