Investing in people is your best bet when applying for funding from the new NSF directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships.
It’s been four decades since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, the legislation that created the field of academic technology transfer. It was a landmark law, leading to an unprecedented surge in American innovation. It also created a new financial burden for universities to bear: the cost of funding technology transfer activities.
New legislation, the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, has authorized funding to remedy that. For the first time since the advent of technology transfer, funding may be made available to universities to support technology transfer operations.
Building Capacity, Funding People, Elevating Potential
While much remains to be determined, Section 10391 of the Act, “Planning and Capacity Building Awards,” contains specific provisions about how awards can be used. These provisions fall into four general areas of investment in TTOs:
A new National Science Foundation directorate, Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (NSF-TIP), has been authorized to award universities up to one million dollars per year, for a period of at least three years, to fund technology transfer offices (TTOs). That said, the funding has not yet been appropriated. NSF-TIP will provide more information during a session at AUTM 2023 entitled “Unpacking the CHIPS Act: What Does it Mean for Technology Transfer.”
|Area of Investment||Provisions, Sec 10391 (c)|
|Professionals||“ensure the availability of staff, including technology transfer professionals, entrepreneurs in residence, and other mentors”|
|Potential||“identify academic research with the potential for technology transfer and commercialization”|
|Partnerships||“develop local, regional, and national partnerships…with the purpose of developing networks, expertise, and capacity”|
|Patents||“help offset the costs of patenting and licensing research products, both domestically and internationally”|
APLU and COGR Weigh In: Ensure the Availability of Staff
The crafting of TTO provisions in the Act, was informed by a number of stakeholders, including APLU, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and COGR, the Council on Government Relations (COGR). Both entities engaged in extensive analysis, culminating in guiding documents.
Of note, ensuring the availability of staff was identified as crucial by both.
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In November 2017 APLU published a landmark report Technology Transfer Evolution: Driving Economic Prosperity. One of the four key themes identified in the report was TTO funding and staffing. Specifically the report stated “Strategic resource allocation for technology transfer, including funding and staffing, must take into account a broader scope of activities and expectations.”
Further, the report identified staffing as a significant obstacle to successful technology transfer, stating “Technology transfer offices are frequently understaffed and under-resourced.” According to APLU it is imperative that universities “continue or begin to develop broader skill sets in technology transfer office staff, and promote professional development opportunities” as part of a roadmap to success.
Similarly, in July of 2018 COGR published a statement entitled Higher Ed Associations RFI Response – Federal Technology Transfer Authorities and Processes in response to a request for information from NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
In this statement, the second priority stated by COGR was “The dearth of funding for university and medical school technology transfer presents a fundamental and ongoing challenge to universities’ ability to transfer federally funded technologies.”
Robust Staffing Builds TTO Success
Technology transfer operations with robust staff are more successful. This, according to data from a research paper A Preliminary Study of the Impact of Resource Allocation on Licensing Outcomes of Academic Institutions in the United States, presented at the 2022 AUTM Annual Meeting. The research team conducted an analysis focused on technology transfer workload and the impact of staff and legal expenses on commercialization outcomes.
Statistical analysis showed that staffing was most strongly associated with positive outcomes. In other words, offices with larger staff and especially those with a greater number of non-licensing staff (positions that do not work directly at licensing), are more successful. Analysis also showed, surprisingly, that patent expenses have a neutral or negative impact on success. So, while the Act allows awards to be used for patent-related costs, using NSF-TIP funding to directly offset patent expenses is less advisable than building capacity by investing in staff.
Interestingly, the paper also includes data from a survey on how TTOs define commercialization success, and parses data by university quartile, based on research expenditures, showing marked differences in outcomes for smaller institutions versus larger institutions.
What Does This Mean for Your TTO?
While licensing functions are critical to every TTO, non-licensing positions are equally important to commercialization success. These positions include those in the fields of marketing, business development, startup development, and patent law.
Gardner Innovation Search Partners recommends the following positions (below) to make your TTO more successful, and to fulfill the Act’s requirements to award funding for professionals, potential, partnerships, and patents.
Unlocking Your Innovation Potential
For many TTOs, hiring marketing staff should be the top priority. Not only will this fulfill the Act’s directive for finding “Potential,” but it will also provide faculty and staff with a deeper understanding of industry needs that inform everything from partnering to the patent process.
Director of Marketing
At the minimum, each TTO should have a director of marketing. Competent decisions about patenting – and the expense of patenting – are driven by market research, and active marketing of technologies is critical to finding licensees. The marketing director oversees both aspects of TTO marketing, market research and technology marketing. They can also oversee general office marketing and event management.
Market Research Manager
Market research is an area of great need for most TTOs. A market research manager works with faculty and the licensing team to determine the commercial potential of inventions, including best uses and pathways to market.
Technology Marketing Manager
Technology marketing includes identifying potential licensees, creating marketing materials, and promoting those materials through active outreach to potential licensees. It also includes creating materials for partnering conferences, organizing partnering activities, and working with the TTO team on events to promote the TTO and its technologies.
Building Partnerships That Enhance Your Region’s Innovation Economy
NSF programs, such as the emerging Regional Innovation Engines (RIE) program, emphasize the importance of forming partnerships. Among RIE’s stated goals are to “Foster partnerships across industry, academia, government, nonprofits, civil society, and communities of practice.” Partnership professionals an important hire for your TTO.
Director of Business Development
Many universities in recent years have hired business development professionals. Depending on the university, these positions serve varying needs. In most cases they are devoted to developing large scale partnerships and collaborations with industry, a position that would be well-supported by the Act.
Director of New Ventures
Startups have become lifeblood to both their university and their community. A director of new ventures works with faculty and entrepreneurs to identify technologies with the potential to become startups, provide training and mentoring to those startups and their founders, and to assist with securing funding, including funding from agency SBIR/STTR programs.
Lower Your Patent Costs, Increase Your Synergy
Finally, in the area of patents, while the Act authorizes the use of funds to pay for patent expenses Gardner Innovation Search Partners recommends hiring intellectual property (IP) professionals. In-house IP management will reduce overall patent costs, improve faculty engagement in the IP process, and enhance patent management and enforcement.
Director of Intellectual Property
A number of leading universities have hired in-house counsel to work with both faculty and licensing staff to draft patent applications, manage patent prosecution, oversee activities utilizing outside counsel, work with university general counsel on enforcement and litigation, and—potentially—supervise a team of IP professionals that include additional attorneys or agents, plus a legal assistant who dockets activity and manages legal correspondence.
Under the supervision of the Director of IP, this professional works in specific domains of scientific expertise, such as bioscience or engineering, to draft provisional patent applications, manage prosecution, and work with outside counsel. The position can be held by either a patent attorney or a patent agent.
A legal assistant is both versatile and economical. In a TTO without in-house counsel, hiring a legal assistant frees up time for the licensing team, time which is better devoted to direct licensing activities. In an office with in-house counsel, the legal assistant is necessary to assure the operation runs smoothly.
Best Bets for Staffing
Staffing needs are often dependent on a number of factors, including total research expenditures and the needs of your regional innovation ecosystem. Gardner Innovation Search Partners helps you unlock your university’s innovation potential. Our experts work with you to find professionals to solve your staffing needs, and connect you to partners for assistance with assessing needs and writing grant proposals. For more information visit the National Science Foundation.