What is university technology transfer?


Technology transfer is the process of moving university research results from the laboratory to the marketplace.  Universities patent inventions, license inventions to corporations, and in some cases, work with faculty/student inventors to launch startups. 


Do all universities and colleges conduct technology transfer?


No, but most universities and colleges that perform research conduct technology transfer activities.  There are at least 200 U.S. universities and colleges that conduct some level of technology transfer.[1]  The depth and breath of these activities vary widely.


Why should economic developers be interested in university technology transfer?


Inventions based on university research can expand a community’s economic base.  Inventions that are licensed to local firms can diversify and expand those firms; inventions that result in the formation of startups can grow and expand local technology clusters.


Does university technology transfer have a significant economic impact on communities?


The Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) Licensing Survey™ reported that since 1980, universities have launched more than 4,500 new companies.  In FY 2004 alone, universities launched 462 new companies and executed almost 4,800 new licenses.  A recent study on Boston showed that technologies spinning out of the region’s universities were responsible in FY 2000 for a $7.4 billion boost to that region’s economy.[2]


What about the average university?


Universities vary considerably in their commercialization outcomes.  The very best universities in technology transfer, such as Stanford and MIT, consistently launch about 15-20 startups and execute more than 100 licenses each year.  Other universities such as the University of Pittsburgh launches annually more than 10 startups, and Iowa State University launches about 4-5 startups.  Universities with research expenditures under $20 million will find it more difficult to realize commercial potential from their research; but it is not impossible, especially if the university identifies and focuses on a niche research area or “core competency.”


Why should universities be interested in transferring and commercializing their technologies?


Universities can retain the intellectual property from a university based invention developed with federal funds, and can receive income from licensing the invention.[3]  Income from the invention is shared with the inventor.  By providing technology transfer opportunities, universities may attract higher quality and more entrepreneurial faculty who can profit directly from their inventions.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Technology Transfer provides a good example of a university’s technology transfer goals; they are to:  (a) commercialize research discoveries for the public good, (b) promote economic growth by launching new ventures based on (university) technology, (c) reward, retain and recruit faculty and students, (d) forge closer ties with industry, and (e) generate income for future research and education. 


Who is responsible for technology transfer activities at universities?


University technology transfer offices (TTOs)[4] manage intellectual property including patents, licenses, trademarks and copyrights derived from university research.  Large research institutes and hospitals may have separate TTOs.  Small universities and colleges may not have a dedicated TTO and these functions may be handled as part of the Office of Vice President for Research or other offices.


How do entrepreneurial development activities at universities relate to technology transfer?


Entrepreneurship activities mainly operate from university business schools, incubators, and research parks.  University sponsored business plan competitions, enterprise forums, networking events and other activities provide opportunities for university entrepreneurs to develop, showcase, finance and commercialize their inventions.  University incubators and research parks provide the infrastructure and often the services to capture spin-offs and retain them in the university community.  “Accelerators” and commercialization centers additionally provide focused assistance to advance the technology to a market, or near market stage.  These activities together provide a critical environment to nurture and grow startups based on university inventions.  However, most university TTOs do not coordinate their activities well with the university’s entrepreneurship programs, and this is one of the gaps in the system. 


How can I, as an economic developer, assist my local university or college with its technology transfer activities?


We have prepared “Recommendations for Economic Developers” (presented in a separate attachment) that outlines specific actions.  In general, economic developers need to become familiar with technology transfer and entrepreneurship programs at local universities and colleges.  They should introduce themselves to directors of these programs, make them aware of regional resources, and facilitate linkages to the resources.  These resources may include at least: (a) legal/patent assistance, (b) business planning and management capacity building, (c) seed/venture capital and angel networks, (d) incubators, innovation centers, etc., (e) networking events, and (f) SBIR assistance.  For more on this topic, see “Recommendations for Economic Developers.”


Why should I assist my local university or college?


Many university TTOs are strong in vetting university inventions but weak in providing university-based entrepreneurs with the help and time they need to start a new business.  Community economic developers can provide valuable assistance and linkages that may make the difference between a university invention being licensed to a corporation located outside of the community or a startup being formed that stays and grows in the community.


[1] AUTM annual Licensing Survey conducted in 2005 received results from 198 academic institutions.

[2] “Engines of Economic Growth”, Appleseed, Inc., 2003.


[3] In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act accelerated university technology transfer by establishing a uniform federal invention policy that permitted universities to retain title to inventions developed through federally funded research.  It also encouraged universities to collaborate with industry in promoting commercialization of inventions and retained federal government “march-in” rights to insure diligence in commercialization by patent licensees.    

[4] Technology transfer offices may be called office of patenting and licensing, office of technology licensing, and by various other names.