From the Director: Challenges of Tech Transfer: “Everything is just getting harder to do” – Part 1

In this two-part blog we discuss the present and future of technology transfer at Emory and nationally with our Executive Director Todd Sherer, PhD, CLP, RTTP.

What do you see as the three biggest challenges in technology transfer today?

I think that the three biggest challenges would be constrained resources, the proliferation of organizations and entities focused on commercialization, and limitations on researchers time coupled with the established academic reward structure.

Constrained resources have always been a challenge for technology transfer and it seems to get a little worse every year. Simply, we are always trying to do more with less. The administrative costs for federal grants has been capped at 26% since 1991, which makes it challenging for universities to grow infrastructure to keep up with the demands of research administration. Additionally, you have to consider that research administration has become very complex as evidenced by the large number of new rules and regulations implemented since 1991. We have incredible pressure to find efficiencies, no matter how small, to cope with increased workload due to our limitations on hiring more staff.

Todd Sherer Photo

The proliferation of programs focused on commercialization across the city, state and nation is occurring as interest in academic tech transfer expands. Ever since the economic crash of 2008, the world became infatuated with commercialization. The reason is simple—economic prosperity requires jobs and net job growth often occurs in young companies. New companies need people, money ,and technology to get started. Technology for new companies is where academic tech transfer comes in. The focus on startups and job creation is driving incredible interest in doing everything possible to support and drive an innovation economy. The challenge in having so many organizations focused on innovation is coordinating efforts, efficient use of resources and managing expectations regarding impact for the future. It’s not all bad, but some entities will be impactful and thrive while others will fail.

The final big challenge is that the world wants more innovation from universities. No one seems to know how much more, but more. Tech transfer tries to squeeze as much innovation out of the university as it can, but at some point we butt up against the reward structure within academia which is focuses on peer-reviewed publication and grant support. Without changing this reward system (and I am not saying we should) it is getting harder to continue to inspire more interest in innovation among faculty. An additional restraint is the amount time faculty have to invest in innovation. They all have full-time jobs being teachers, researchers, and clinicians so their time to invest in commercialization is restricted.

How has Emory OTT attempted to address some of these challenges?

We have looked for creative ways to identify excess capacity and allocate resources efficiently within our office. As an example, we try to identify which licensing associate’s portfolio is over capacity compared to another’s who might be under capacity at a given point in time. The same thing for our contract analysts. Once we can identify that imbalance we know we can reallocate workload. There are real challenges in doing this efficiently without sacrificing our service level; while doing it well could help us maximize efficiency within the office.

We have engaged experienced industry individuals as consultants to provide additional capacity quickly. We train consultants to use our systems, processes and ways of doing things to see if we can plug them in when we need them and then unplug them when we don’t. We are currently working with two consultants for tech transfer and one consultant for industry contracting. All of this is focused on making sure that we can maximize capacity at any given time.

Lastly, we continue to work to enhance our website and other online and technology based resources. These online resources can facilitate and standardize the matching of people, technologies, and companies to the commercialization resources available to them. They help us try to stay focused on patenting and licensing, because the basis of technology transfer is protecting intellectual property rights and licensing them out.

To summarize, we look for small, incremental improvements in workflow and processes. Home runs are hard to find and very small savings on high volume activities, like MTAs, can add up over the course of a year. In short, there is no magic solution and it requires constant vigilance to assure we approach our maximum efficiency.

How do you see your role or OTTs here at Emory?

I view my primary role in the office as assuring that we have adequate resources, priorities, and focus to balance speed with quality. We are experimenting with new ways of creating transparency around our work. Staff sometimes incorrectly think it is for the purpose of checking up on them when it’s really about creating confidence around what and how we are performing so that resources can be more effectively and appropriately deployed. Emory has been very supportive of new resources when a clear and compelling case can be made. That is the way it should be as opposed to a theory or regular complaining.

Ironically, I used to complain because nobody cared about tech transfer. Universities sort of just allowed us to go forward and do business as long as we didn’t cost too much money and we didn’t bring any unwanted litigation to the university through our commercial activities. These days I complain because everybody cares about commercialization and innovation. So, managing expectations and keeping them realistic in an environment where everybody is an expert can be just as challenging.