This blog is one of the few places I know where any alternatives to the prevailing university ideology of invention can be presented, where assumptions can be questioned, where facts get checked, where assertions are challenged. From time to time, people write to me on the side–“Thank you for this material”; “I agree with what you have written, but I would lose my job if I took such positions publicly.”
For the past 20 years or so, I have worked in research enterprise–technology transfer, intellectual property management, research administration, corporate relations, economic development, public policy, new ventures, and innovation.
Much of my work has been at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. For what it is worth, the IP portfolios I and my IP management teams have produced somewhere between $30M and $40M in licensing revenues while also pursuing open source and open architecture opportunities. Our ROI year to year for nearly a decade was about 300%.
I have also consulted with a number of universities and companies, and continue to do so. From July 2008 to September 2011 I was supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, with matching funds from the University of Washington. That’s where Research Enterprise got its start. Research Enterprise, however, does not represent the positions or opinions of any of my sponsors or employers.
This blog has posted over 600 essays since 2008, and about 900 readers visit the site each month. From time to time, I make a proof-reading pass and clean up an essay. If there’s a substantive change, I generally add an annotation or show the change. I make an effort to document my points with citations and links. Sometimes the text gets technical. But where else is anyone going to find the technical markup? Surely not in the academic literature. Check for yourself. See what holds up. Because of the spam the site gets hit with daily, I have set all comments to moderation. If your comment does not show up, send me a note. It may have been eaten by the spam defenses.
I make an effort to anchor my work in experience, evidence, history, and reason. I don’t care for confirmation bias, halo effects, appeal to authority, or faulty dilemmas. You will find that Research Enterprise often runs counter to the prevailing institutional rhetoric about the role of university research, how innovation happens, state-supported economic development, and systems of IP management in public interest. Universities do contribute to public well being, and there certainly is a role for IP management. It would be good threfore to get the IP management right.
University IP administration is populated with many good-hearted people and plagued by awful policies and practices. I have worked the entrepreneurial backside of university licensing deals and am dismayed by what I find in communications, in negotiations, in license drafting, in knowledge of IP, in representation of university policy. I have also worked through many university IP policies–perhaps 200, counting multiple versions of these policies over time. I have over 100 pages of annotations to these policies. As well, I have worked through scores of university licensing office web sites in some detail. I continue to work with universities that choose to make a difference–and are willing to work against the status quo to do that.
What should happen, if so much of what passes for university IP management is a rickety mess? That’s the challenge. At Research Enterprise, the answers lie in the direction of freedom over institutional control, catallaxy over economy, clarity over murkiness, and diversity over monoculture, moral compass over administrative requirements, transparency over spin. Perhaps the best university IP policy is not to have one. Next best is one that authorizes the use of institutional resources in support of dissemination of discovery and collaboration without demanding ownership. Down the chain, third best is to provide a uniform practice for faculty and others that choose to place their IP with their university for management. These policies need not be complicated, lengthy, or draconic. Innovation is challenging enough. Burdening a promising idea with bureaucracy does not improve its chances of catching on.
The best role for a university administration in IP management is that of trustee, of mediator, of guardian of the academic environment and the public interest. Institutional self-interest in making money from patent positions runs against such a role, against public interest, against the strengths of a university as a social institution. Optimizing policy for that self-interest against the interests of faculty and students, industry, and the broader public is yet again worse.
History points out that universities do not have to demand ownership of inventions to support public access to discovery, industry investment in inventions, or broad use of ideas that stimulate creative thinking most everywhere. There will be jobs for those who have the skills to assist in making connections, assessing IP portfolios, constructing deals, and taking care of relationships. Research Enterprise, though it grumbles at times, is committed to an optimistic view of the future. There is work to do, progress to be made, new things to discover. Clear the clutter and let people get on with it.