Archive for March, 2017

Bridging Innovation between Academia and the Private Sector

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

Recent studies of Innovation have pointed to the growing relevance of external sources of innovation. Rather than relying on internal Research & Development (R&D), private companies and organizations are reported to increasingly engage in ‘Open Innovation’, especially with the Academic Sector (check more information in the article “Relationship-based university-industry links and open innovation: towards a research agenda”). This means innovation can be regarded as resulting from distributed inter-organizational networks, rather than single companies. In the same vein, various concepts of ‘interactive’ innovation have been put forward to understand the non-linear, iterative and multi-agent character of innovation processes. But what is the definition of Innovation nowadays? According to different sources, innovation could be defined as the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. Innovation involves deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products. In business and enterprises, innovation often results when the company uses ideas in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers. Well, we know that most of the new discoveries occur in the Academic Sector and the Private Sector, even though having R&D, lags behind in some aspects. Depending on the country this will be different too and bridging innovation licensing and technology transfer between both sectors is not trivial. Today we see several Start Up Incubators and Accelerators popping up all over the world, especially in the United States. Each one of these has a different model and duration, however most are not connected directly to Universities. In the last 5-10 years, this is changing. We are starting to see established public companies with big valuations in the technology sector and also pharmaceutical companies opening spaces for Innovation, Incubation of Start Ups and even Start Up Accelerators to foster new Ideas that could be used to create new solutions and/or products for society. These are nice initiatives. For example Johnson & Johnson has the JLABS, with the main vision of empower and enable science to reach people that needs it faster. Will they work bringing more products to the company pipeline? We will see in the near future. However, technology transfer deals between academia and the private sector are not easy. We have a few professionals that are experts in this field, even lawyers that do not understand or are not interested. But, some successful deals happened and are happening. I have been the Director of a TTO in a University for a year and I’ve seen all the problems related to doing these types of deals. TTOs help Universities to commercialize Intellectual Property and Research developed inside their Campus. My take on these problems: mostly lack of efficiency in the processes. Why? What are the main problems in tech transfer and licensing between the Universities and the Private Sector? First, the academic professor and researcher from the University lack business skills, since he was not trained for that. In this case, the University must have a Technology Transfer Office (TTO) or a similar Department that supports the Professor in these cases. Secondly, the University still has some aversion of transfering a product or solution to companies that will bring it to market. I believe this is a cultural problem. When we say University, everybody has in mind a teaching Institution without the objective of having revenue and profit (and this is not the reality, Universities need a source of revenue that is not just Student tuition and private donations). Thirdly, when both sides, the University TTO and the representatives of the private sector seat in a big “marble” Table to discuss Terms and Conditions, the University is always the weaker part even though everything started there with their own resources. That could be justifiable since after the deal most of the risk until the new product goes to market will be from the company licensing it. What the future holds for Licensing and Tech Transfer? Well, I believe that all Universities must have a TTO with well-trained people to get the best deals for the University and the Private Sector needs to change the approach when dealing with an Institution that started the whole development of some product or service of their interest. It needs to be a “win win” situation otherwise it is a waste of time and money from both sides. I believe this a good start and things are changing in Tech Transfer and Licensing. However, both sides, especially the University needs to be more “professional” and business-oriented when closing these types of deal because, in the end, they will get their piece of the money pie if everything works well with no risk in the long term in most cases.