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Tech Transfer Event Summary
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Technology Transfer: Fueling America's Innovation Pipeline

As institutions take on a more prominent role in promoting and promulgating innovation, it becomes imperative that they tap into America’s entire talent pool to identify and build high-growth entrepreneurship.

On Thursday, October 25, 2012 AWIS convened a panel of experts to discuss opportunities, identify promising initiatives, and propose solutions for how to best engage the innovative potential of our entire academic workforce in moving science and technology out of the lab and into the private sector. The event took place at the Pew Charitable Trusts in downtown Washington, DC.

AWIS Policy Symposium Series Technology Transfer Panel

Moderator Jim Woodell and panelist Mike Waring, Lila Feisee, Mark Crowell, and Henry Etzkowitz, Ph.D.

Overview of Issue

Studies show that if schoolchildren are asked to draw a picture of a scientist, they generally illustrate a white man in a lab coat with crazy hair. I suspect that if you asked adults to draw a picture of an inventor, they would draw the same thing. Just as taking children to a lab and exposing them to real scientists of a variety of genders and ethnic backgrounds leads them to draw a diversity of people in lab coats when the experiment is repeated, we aim to broaden the idea of what a typical inventor is as well. Women comprise half of the U.S. labor force, a quarter of the STEM workforce, but hold less than 10% of the patents in this country. AWIS has developed a new initiative, a symposium series designed to bring thoughtful dialogue to and highlight areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions where women are continually underrepresented. Our first topic was technology transfer at academic institutions.

While the number of women applying for patents is generally on the rise, a persistent gender gap continues with regard to technology transfer and entrepreneurial activity. Several recent studies inadvertently bring attention to this problem. A study coming out in the Journal of Management looked at hypothetical IPOs and found that 2nd year MBA students undervalued the company and offered the CEO less compensation if they believed the company was being run by a woman. Another study recently published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences found that an applicant for a lab manager’s position was seen as less competent, a less desirable hire, less worthy of mentoring, and offered a lower salary if the application had a woman’s name on it rather than a man’s. A current study is looking at the likelihood of technology licensing managers to encourage an entrepreneur to disclose his or her technology. The preliminary results suggest that the officers are more likely to encourage the entrepreneur if an XY is involved in the chromosomal arrangement.

These are all examples of implicit bias, a key factor contributing to attrition of women from the STEM pipeline. Technology transfer is an increasingly relevant topic in this national dialogue as well as measure of productivity in some fields. AWIS, operating at the nexus of science and gender, seeks to identify reasons why women patent at a lower rate and identify ways to increase the number of women in tech transfer initiatives to help women fulfill their intellectual potential and so help sustain American economic competitiveness. To do this we interviewed tech managers, past Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) presidents, innovation experts, women entrepreneurs, innovation outreach program coordinators, policy experts, and patent attorneys. We concluded with a policy symposium of leaders representing a variety of stakeholder groups to generate a meaningful, result-oriented dialogue, pulling together an audience slightly outside the typical cross section of stakeholders in this space.

Highlights of Presentations

Joan Herbers, Ph.D., professor of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University and a past president of AWIS, initiated the proceedings by explaining why AWIS is uniquely positioned to help facilitate a dialogue on technology transfer. She introduced Jim Woodell, the Director of Innovation and Technology Policy at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, who served as moderator for our the panel. Mr. Woodell offered a brief history of what limitations American innovation faced prior to the introduction of the Bayh Dole Act in 1980. He focused on the achievements which came out of federal labs and early tech transfer programs like those that emerged from University of California system and the University of Wisconsin and explained that, because universities had no rights to their own intellectual property, they had very little incentive to develop the ideas to their full potential.

Michael Waring, the Executive Director of Federal Relations for the University of Michigan, gave a great overview of the importance of technology transfer to universities and the American economy. He explained the overall process of taking an idea and turning it into something functional so that the public can benefit from the research their tax dollars have supported. A key point is that, according to the 2011 AUTM report, 73% of the startups began locally. The significance of this is crucial to looking at the issue of free agency being proposed in the Startup Act 2.0. If innovators can go other places to develop their technology, local universities and economies stand to lose out.

Following along those lines, Lila Feisee, Vice President of International Affairs for Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), delved into the technology transfer opportunities as it applies specifically to the biotechnology ecosystem. As most products that benefit consumers come from the lab, the importance of legislation which impedes that process is detrimental to the whole process. She therefore touched upon the importance of policies which protects the intellectual property (IP) innovators and companies and provides an incentive to produce therapeutics despite the high cost of trial and error to develop them. The lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union brought against Myriad Genetics over the legality of patenting gene products will likely continue to be an evolving story as genome sequencing becomes cheaper than the tests for individual mutations and a greater interest in people’s own medical information must be reconciled with disclosure of such patented information. In tandem with that is the bigger story about how to protect IP internationally and incentivize therapeutic treatments for third world diseases like Malaria, where the economic enticement is low because the affected population has minimal purchasing power, as well as those like Niemann-Pick disease that affect a very small population. Both of these issues have yet to be resolved but may have repercussions for tech transfer offices at universities.

Mark Crowell, Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) and Executive Director of U.Va. Innovation, offered a terrific ground level perspective on the challenges and opportunities for university tech transfer programs. Crowell spoke candidly about the challenges of creating a tech transfer office (TTO) focused solely on revenue generation in comparison with ones that exist to support the faculty but may not be as lucrative. A program may develop one homerun product that is incredibly profitable, but the odds of that are small. Therefore, it may be more advantageous to engage the broadest innovative potential possible, but that is not without challenges too. This raises additional questions about meaningful metrics of success for a TTO and how to best do that while at the same time venture capital and angel investment funds have shrunk. For U.Va this has meant shifting towards engagement in the whole economic development spectrum, taking a single idea and turning it into a licensable product or a startup company, but this then means many other financial hurdles have to be overcome. To cultivate an ecosystem of success, they have begun implementing other initiatives to try to increase participation. One way they have worked to do this is by changing tenure standards as it relates to translational research, putting technology and idea disclosure on researchers’ radar more consistently. Another way has been to facilitate networking to a greater degree than in the past by pairing U.Va. employees with others who have entrepreneurial experience and can help them develop the best business model. Crowell, too, is thinking big picture as national boundaries for collaboration and financing continue to dissolve. If international players are interested in funding American ideas, and vice versa, perhaps the problems with international IP regulation will begin to be resolved through international grassroots solutions.

To conclude the panel, an expert in innovation studies currently engaged with the Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research (H-STAR) Institute at Stanford University, Henry Etzkowitz, Ph.D., talked about an alternative model for university education to increase innovative success. Instead of perpetuating the emphasis on "serial entrepreneurs” and the linear process of disclosing an idea once it has sprung, Etzkowitz suggested ways to encourage engagement in the entrepreneurial space through earlier educational opportunities. This alternative system gives participants exposure to the skills needed to be successful in entrepreneurship by emphasizing the interface between academics, industry, and business. It also increases the breadth of participation because many who may be hesitant to approach a TTO without a tangible idea to disclose might be interested in developing skills in this space. It winds up being far more inclusive than exclusive to the benefit of both the university and the undergraduate or graduate students and employees.

Concluding Recommendations

Our recommendations at the conclusion of the panel are that TTOs should track gender and ethnicity of those that come to disclose their technology, gain patents, license technology, and develop startups and this information should be included in AUTM’s annual reports. Second, TTOs employees should undergo implicit bias training. Last, to best serve their own interests by tapping into the greatest possible pool of entrepreneurial participants, as well as to achieve the greatest possible financial returns, TTOs and academic institutions should examine successful models of engagement currently in place at other universities and adapt them to fit their own needs and populations. Some have suggested that conflicts have arisen in places where the TTO is already financially successful and the leadership perhaps fails to see the need to adapt with the changing times to offer more opportunities than those currently available. However, to remain competitive with other undergraduate and graduate training programs that do start to adopt programs with more options for experience in this space, these institutions may be forced to adapt to a changing model of education or risk losing out on the best intellectual capital overall.

Subsequent to the event, we drafted a white paper to disseminate our findings and recommendations based on the panel, the current literature, and many interviews with people in the tech transfer space all over the country. Our future panels will be focused on high tech manufacturing, small business development, and international relations.

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