Teaching Innovators to Innovate

Taleb in Antifragile, having commented on the invention of rollers on suitcases:

The simpler and more obvious the discovery, the less equipped we are to figure it out by complicated methods. The key is that the significant can only be revealed through practice. How many of these simple, trivially simple heuristics are currently looking and laughing at us?

. . .

Both governments and universities have done very, very little for innovation and discovery, precisely because, in addition to their blinding rationalism, they look for the complicated, the lurid, the newsworthy, the narrated, the scientistic, and the grandiose, rarely for the wheel on the suitcase. (190)

Consider this point in three contexts. The first is that if we have sophisticated research laboratories, complex theories offering nuanced hypotheses to test, elaborate and sensitive equipment–with all that apparatus, do we expect a simple result? A prevailing idea shadowing university research is that all the important findings to be made will be made with sophisticated equipment–“advanced technology,” “high tech,”and the like. It is as if university researchers have decided that all simple discoveries have already been made, and all that’s left is the complicated, difficult, obscure ones. The simple ones–if there are any left, such as wheels on suitcases–are not worthy of academic research, only for, say, simpletons and wannabes.

Now look at the problem of university “technology transfer” in this light. If a university is producing inventions from advanced technology, then it inherits a particular kind of transfer problem–from labs with complicated, customized, “advanced” equipment and mindset to organizations (such as businesses) that often do not have such equipment or mindset. It is not that they are not capable of having either–it is just that they do not, and it would take time and money to come up to speed. That means one has to do more than offer the invention–one has to provide a complete infrastructure within which the invention makes sense.

This is equivalent to trying to get subsistence farmers to adopt a tractor. Fine–they see the advantage, but they don’t have money for fuel, and whoa, they have to plant while it is still muddy and a tractor is not going to work well in the mud. So once you change their economy, make them plant different crops at different times, and re-engineer their climate or at least their local hydrology, that tractor is not, for them, a valuable innovation. It is an expensive, near-random complication, at best a novelty.

If a university produces “advanced” technology inventions for users who lack the same infrastructure as the lab, then the “transfer” has to be more than the patent rights. No amount of compulsory assignment, orderly administrative process, heroic marketing, hardball negotiating, or renaming the licensing office to include the word “alliances” is going to change the fundamental conditions of the problem.

Finally, consider the problem of the technology transfer apparatus itself. Simple solutions do not require huge investments. Most anyone can fit wheels to a suitcase, in all sorts of variations. One needs at most a shop, not a university laboratory. Perhaps one wants a patent on the idea. But it’s not to attract investment without which wheels on suitcases will never happen. If innovation is one’s goal–and attendant economic vitality–then the patent in such a case is an expense and barrier, not an essential step. Once university tech transfer administrators fixate on patents as an essential step, they demand patents. In doing so, they introduce complication–obtaining assignment, logging the IP into a database, retaining a patent attorney, preparing an application, dealing with the patent office, paying fees to the patent office, paying fees to the attorney, tracking all the fees for future cost recovery if a licensee ever shows up, hunting for a licensee, negotiating a 35 page patent license, dickering over 2% royalty on net sales, or 2.5% net royalty, fussing over whether it’s net sales or adjusted gross income and just what income is to be included.

Oh, and that’s just a bit of the complication. A complicated system to obtain a simple result? No, the tech transfer system, itself, tends to become complicated as it becomes a general administrative process rigged to cover the volume expectation. If many inventions will be patented, then all inventions in the system, to be fair, and to be efficient, and to be consistent, must be patented, and to be patented must be owned by the university. A complicated system is justified only if it obtains a complicated result.

I remember, once, at our technology transfer office, an inventor disclosed a garden composter. It may have been one of our most important inventions, and the manager assigned to it really wanted it to come to something. But all the methods available by policy–filing patents, marketing to tech firms, royalties on sales, rationales for monopoly positions–had little to do with how a new composter for home use gets introduced into garden supply stores. Low tech is not somehow less valuable than high tech. It just does not have the complications. If one has complicated methods, then low tech appears ill-suited.

What if the innovation that an economy needs does not come, generally, from complicated thinking in complicated laboratories? That even that complicated stuff does not, generally, become useful to others by means of complicated transfer protocols? And if there are simple things that move efficiently to make a contribution in an economy, why would a university build, first–and only–a transfer shop dedicated to complicated things using complicated transfer methods? Yes, yes, I understand that’s an underserved market, but if the purpose was economic vitality, why would administrators start with an expensive, inefficient, liability-laden, bitterness-producing, slow approach? Why not start with a simple approach, with simple results, for greatest, easiest impact?

Taleb again:

Think of the following event: A collection of hieratic persons (from Harvard or some such place) lecture birds on how to fly. Imagine bald males in their sixties, dressed in black robes, officiating in a form of English that is full of jargon, with equations here and there for good measure. The bird flies. Wonderful confirmation! They rush to the department of ornithology to write books, articles, and reports stating that the bird has obeyed them, an impeccable causal inference. The Harvard Department of Ornithology is now indispensable to bird flying. It will get government research funds for its contribution.

It also happens that birds write no such papers and books, conceivably because they are just birds, so we never get their side of the story….Nobody discusses the possibility of the birds’ not needing lectures–and nobody has any incentive to look at the number of birds that fly without such help from the great scientific establishment. (195)

Is not this what has happened in university technology transfer, as the dissemination of ideas and results has become formalized, IP-d, and put behind a paywall–and not any paywall, but a complicated patent-licensing paywall. If one defunds the administrative unit, why, then, innovation will cease, and, and, and birds will no longer fly.

Posit: a university can today, right now, in the moment eliminate its IP policy and its patent licensing operation without any loss to the regional economy, without any problems with compliance with research contracts, and without any public outrage. The only faculty who will be dismayed are the ones who thought the job of tech transfer personnel was to make them rich. This is not to say that faculty, staff, and students will not have access to patent services if they want them–it’s just that university administrators, with their complicated procedures and requirements are no longer trying to teach them how to do get on with their efforts. In this view of the world, there is still room for invention management brokers–and perhaps, even more room for more kinds of such brokering. Within universities, there is room for people who can make referrals; even for people who can manage IP that is properly the university’s, or must be managed properly by the university (such as material received under license). But much of the transfer operation–the export of discovery–need not operate via complicated methods demanded by universities, methods set up not to ensure broad use, but rather to ensure that the university gets a major cut of anything that might be successful.


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