The Value of TLOs

The TLO (technology licensing office) is a bug in the grass of innovation. There’s so much more involved than holding patents on research inventions for money. However, bugs have their place in innovation, provided they are the right kind of bug. After all the “no-ing” of my last post, here’s a broader discussion of why getting to “no” is so important for the future vitality of TLO practice.

The TLO as a patent broker descends from faculty innovation. The idea of the university TLO starts with Research Corporation and an inspired idea by Frederick Cottrell to use patents as a means of promoting the connection of academic research and industrial investment for the public good. In the 1920s and 30s and 40s, the TLO moved through the variations of WARF and other location-specific foundations serving specific campuses rather than national research organizations such as the Smithsonian Institute. By the 1940s and 50s, Vannevar Bush drew on the model to propose a national research foundation, which took the form of the NSF, with other federal agencies following with their own mission-directed variations. That same model produced some of the great federal research universities–Stanford, MIT, Wisconsin, and Washington among them. In many ways, the fabric of federal research, and the various intermediaries by which it operates, are derived from faculty-led innovation in research and innovation management. At each point, those innovations have had to use administration, and defend themselves from too much of it.

Intermediaries appear to be important to innovation. Andrew Hargadon has a nice piece of work looking at how breakthrough networks come about. Intermediaries can supply a lot of the needed resources to build these networks. For the most part, breakthrough networks do not appear to form under the auspicious of pre-ordained bureaucratic mandates to form. Rather, they appear to be the work of dedicated, even lucky individuals, often consummate self-promoters. Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers that sometimes, the only luck that’s needed is the right birth date, or being just good enough to see the opportunity without over-thinking it. Such networks do not form because there’s an administrative punch list to complete, or because a list of participants is compiled and labeled “breakthrough network”.

TLOs historically have been a form of intermediary. As independent, research affiliated foundations they have marked a progressive hope for the role of research in changing lives for the better. It is a worthy hope. The use of patents to do this is a great experiment with nearly a 100 years running. I hope there is a big celebration planned for 2012 to mark the foundation of Research Corporation and the end of Mayan long count time as we know it. Perhaps by then we’ll have gotten the TLO stuff sorted out as well.

Something has slipped. We are at another turning point, but not an obvious crisis. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to detail now. That’s what the practice community should be surfacing as important rather than glossing over for a smooth story about past successes.

Perhaps it was post-Bayh-Dole in 1981, though it could have been latent already with the formation in 1974 of SUPA, which later became AUTM. Both SUPA and Bayh-Dole on their own are good things. But they set the conditions for the intrusion of university bureaucracy into research innovation. Rather than innovation being faculty-led, and innovation management also being faculty-led, and research sponsorship happening because research was faculty-led, university administrators came to the simpler and more convenient understanding that research was an administrative asset, not a faculty asset, and it was the university that won research awards, not the faculty of the university, and that the university administration therefore was the proper owner of research results, not the faculty.

Many TLOs became in-house university operations. That also need not be a problem, but it is part of the slippage the moment is is managed poorly. What has slipped, then? It’s the compulsory nature of the management. It’s the limitation of the model to the range of research innovation. It’s the fixation on commercialization as an objective rather than an externality. It’s the rhetoric that declares public success even as it is failing its primary community 99% of the time.

An even greater slip is that university administrations somehow have decided that it is the administrators who care deeply about the public interest and it is those darned faculty inventors that are greedy, gullible, and incapable of understanding such a complex system as patent-based innovation. No, really. That’s the argument in a nub. Right there in the amicus brief in Stanford v. Roche. It’s in the AUTM Business Week restatement of why it disagrees with positions no one has taken.

So now we find ourselves thirty years on into Bayh-Dole with hundreds of TLOs. As intermediaries, they are potentially hugely valuable. As moralizing extensions of administrative orderliness in place of understanding, seeking only their own financial benefit and not that of a broader community, and no longer ready to learn and adapt and advocate for and develop the resources inventors and communities need in the here and now, then we’ve got an infestment community.

I’m all for TLOs. I think of them as potential hives of creative talent, little IDEOs of innovation network design working gig after gig, like honeybees hitting a grove of almond trees (developed by faculty researchers at UC Riverside, no less!). Small things with stingers, but used to support what’s good.

That’s where we are. I’d like to see TLOs prosper as honeybee intermediaries, but for that to happen, they have to open up, have to get back to creative culture, have to realize that their primary alliance is with faculty investigators and inventors, who provide them a reason to exist at all–who invented them.

So all this current discussion about agent choice that AUTM so openly and confidently opposes means that AUTM is ready for TLOs to die rather than support innovative faculty. That would be a great loss. And folks in TLOs who let AUTM go out and present a policy face to the public as if it is their own faces and don’t speak up for themselves had better look in the mirror. Ain’t no honeybee there no more. It’s a faculty-dreading, administration-loving, innovation-adverse cockroach face. Does not make honey. Will survive. But what’s the point in that for research innovation?

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