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Close collaborators: Colleges & technology companies

Kay Easton, February 8, 2012Close collaborators: Colleges & technology companies

University research and development centers are hooking up with technology firms and startup companies in relationships that benefit both academia and business. In 2010, 657 new commercial products were created through technology transfer, according to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). For example, research at Oregon State University, OSU, has created products such as Smart Desktop, personal information management software; Strands, a social recommendation engine; and Incisive, a spreadsheet analysis engine.

A survey by AUTM revealed that tech transfer is big business for both universities and businesses, showing these spending totals in 2010:

  • $59.1 billion for total research at universities, enterprises and other organizations
  • $39.1 billion for federally funded sponsored research
  • $4.3 billion for industry-sponsored research

Tech transfer transforms innovations from college and university research labs into services and commercial products. The process provides new technology to companies, a revenue stream to the school, and, very possibly, royalties to the inventors.

Technology transfer: How it works

Tech transfer has moved universities from traditional teaching and research roles into active collaborators with the for-profit sector, based on the exchange of ideas, personnel, materials, equipment and other resources.

Tech transfer offices help researchers and industry sponsors find each other. These services also typically handle community outreach, market research, applications for research grants and patents, and licensing negotiations. These offices may connect with organizations that provide funding and business support to emerging technology-based companies. Universities provide lab space and materials so researchers have the time and freedom to innovate.

Tech transfer: What's in it for colleges and universities?

Colleges and universities receive research grants and a share of the revenue from patents and licensing agreements. Research universities that produce high profile technology innovations earn a reputation for being able to attract and retain research talent, and they then receive more research grants and more lucrative offers from private industry. Because of income from patents and licensing agreements, history shows that researchers -- who might otherwise defect to higher paying private sector careers -- remain at the school to continue their work.

As one example, OSU received more than $4 million in licensing royalty income and $5.4 million in sponsored research funding from the private sector in fiscal year 2011. This initiative is directly in line with the university's goal of increasing private support.

Tech transfer: What's in it for industry?

While gaining access to new products and a talent pool for industry internships, companies also have first crack at the next generation of tech leaders for emerging industries. And in some cases, these companies gain access to the use of specialized facilities or industrial parks located on university property. Pennsylvania State University, which does over $100 million in industry-sponsored research each year, provides space for startup companies at Innovation Park, its 118-acre business park. Companies located in the park have access to Penn State resources and support services.

Tech transfer: What's in it for students?

For students seeking a computer degree or other high-tech academic program, these corporate programs provide an opportunity to work with faculty who are truly on the cutting edge or even secure an internship in a local company.

Furthermore, researchers on projects that go commercial generally get a share of the royalties. Tech transfer can be particularly useful for students pursuing engineering, biotechnology, business and computer science degrees who are eager to participate in innovative technology development as well as learning the fundamentals of forming a new company.

As part of the University of Alabama's initiative to be a student-centered research university, it offers a Computer-Based Honors Program that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct research with faculty members; students and faculty members jointly own any patents and share profits with the university.

Culture of investment for future tech growth

Tech transfer is hot: The National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer reports that university startups go public at a much higher rate than other U.S. enterprises.

Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, has defined successful innovation as new ideas in science and technology that are transformed into commercial products, according to a November 2011 viodi.com article entitled: "MIT President on How to Improve America's Innovation Economy." In a speech to the Commonwealth Club in Santa Clara, Calif., Hockfield suggested that the U.S. needs to conceive ideas here and use high-tech, advanced manufacturing to build the products as well. These efforts will help to re-establish the culture of investing for economic growth. Tech transfer is a giant step in the right direction.

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