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MAPPING THE UNIVERSITY TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER PROCESS
Brian Harmon, University of Minnesota
Alexander Ardishvili, University of Minnesota
Richard Cardozo, University of Minnesota
Tait Elder, University of Minnesota
John Leuthold, University of Minnesota
John Parshall, University of Minnesota
Michael Raghian, University of Minnesota
Donald Smith, University of Minnesota
The nature of the technology transfer process is explored by a retrospective study of 23 transfers of patent rights from a major research university to 19 private sector firms over 10 years beginning in 1983. Five transfers resulted in the formation of a new business; 18 transfers were made to existing firms, more than half to large companies. Except for four cases of transfer made through "arm's-length shopping," transfers involved prior relationships among participants. None of the transfers has yet produced significant job creation, increases in social wealth, or royalties.
Transfer of technologies from the non-commercial to the private sector is increasingly regarded as playing a significant role in new business starts, growth of existing businesses, and new job creation (Matkin, 1990; Parker & Zilberman, 1993; Proctor, 1993). The assumption is that technology transfer into the private sector will contribute significantly to new business growth and new job creation, and, by promoting major technological advances, to the increase of social wealth.
The literature suggests the existence of two sets of assumptions about the technology transfer process: (1) that businesses systematically search out new technologies from multiple sources, including university laboratories; and (2) that transfer occurs among individuals who know and work with one another, some in the public sector and others in the private sector. These two sets of assumptions appear inconsistent. The first implies an "arm's length" transaction; the second, an arrangement arising from acquaintances, perhaps including collaborative work.
These competing assumptions hold very different implications for entrepreneurial behavior and public policy. "Arm's length" shopping suggests that both business and laboratory publicize, respectively, their requirements and offerings; opportunities for creative brokerage ought to exist. In contrast, if technology is transferred through some prior relationships among individuals, building closely connected networks becomes far more useful to the transfer process than publicity and brokerage. Entrepreneurs seeking to start businesses based on new technologies must decide whether to spend their limited time building and maintaining networks/cooperative relationships, or shopping for new technologies. Public policy and the efforts of the university transfer agencies intended to facilitate transfer may either emphasize assistance in network building, or facilitating "shopping" by organizing and/or paying for "publicity."
The question of "arm's length" versus "networking" strategies is closely related with the question of what are the steps and sequences of steps of the transfer process. Most of the existing models of technology transfer view this process as a linear progression of steps from idea generation and technology development at the university, to patenting the technology and then--to establishing the university-private firm link through a formal search process. According to this model, the process usually culminates in patent rights transfer (Zhao & Zilberman, 1992; Cole, 1992). This linear sequence model seems to fit best the "arm's length" assumption. However, if networking/collaborative relationships strategies are used, then the utility of the linear model becomes questionable. For example, in cases when relationships between the university inventor and the future buyer of the technology in industry exist prior to the transfer, it is possible that not only the finished "product," but even the idea of the technology in question, resulted from collaborative effort and a complicated web of information and resource exchanges.
The above listed assumptions raise a number of questions. First, is technology really transferred according to the logic of a linear model? Second, which set of assumptions-- "arm's length" buying or "networking" -- more accurately describe technology transfer? Third, is opportunity for an enterprising business to capitalize on the untapped cornucopia of university technologies really as great as it seems? What kinds of businesses benefit the most from this process? Is the benefit for the economy in terms of new business and new job creation as significant as it is alleged to be? Fourth, if different modes of transfer are used ("arm's length" or "networking", linear inventor-to-buyer transfer versus multiple reciprocal exchanges), then are they used to the same degree in transfers to both small and large firms, new firms and existing, established companies?
In an attempt to address the above questions, we retrospectively studied characteristics of 23 successful transfers of technology rights from a single major research university to private sector firms over 10-year period beginning in 1983.
We next classify recent literature on technology transfer, then describe our method and findings. We conclude with a discussion of these findings and their implications for future research and public policy.
RECENT LITERATURE ON TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER
Technology transfer is among the most popular topics in current business and technology management literature. A search of only three data sources: Nexis on-line database, and ABI-Inform and Proquest CD-ROM databases - - yielded about 800 articles and books on this topic published in last four years. The largest part of the available literature concerns public policy issues, or describes processes of transfer of technology from developed countries to lesser developed countries of the world. After eliminating from our search these two groups of articles, we still were left with approximately 300 articles that were relevant. Examination of these abstracts, selected articles and books allowed us to classify the literature into two groups:
Models of "arm's length shopping"/"Linear transfer models"
Collaborative networks/cooperative relationships perspective
The studies of the first group assume a rational decision making point of view, and regard technology transfer as a process that can and should be planned and managed; and that unfolds as a linear sequence of steps from development to negotiations and to transfer proper. In these models, inventors and future users of technology function independently, without coordinating their efforts until the first negotiations regarding a specific technology. The two parties find one another usually through a formal search process that is often mediated by a transfer agent. The technology in this model moves in one direction--from the university lab to the private buyer.
The majority of studies reported in the literature describe processes of technology transfer from universities to private sector (Matkin, 1990; Samsom & Gurdon, 1993; Proctor, 1993; Bell, 1993; Parker, & Zilberman, 1993), transfer from governmental labs to the private sector (Cole, 1992; Scott, 1993), and transfer between and within private sector companies (Leonard-Barton & Sinha, 1993; Chakrabarti et al., 1993; Palaniswami & Bishop, 1993). Since the major goal of these studies is usually to identify the most efficient methods of administering and facilitating the technology transfer processes, a special accent is put on patent policy and administration, and organizational forms that facilitate transfer.
An extension of this linear model was offered recently by the authors of a "Brownian model" of technology transfer (Padmanabhan & Souder, 1994). The model attempts to account for numerous factors involved in the process, and views successful technology transfer as a process of managing a portfolio of interacting facilitators, barriers, and mass elements, in such a way as to steer the dynamics of the process toward the successful transfer. The model demonstrates that the speed of transfer is a function not only of the efforts to increase the technology's critical mass but also of the efforts to offset the barriers with facilitators.
One set of studies is devoted to the analysis of the role of the technology transfer agent (either an inventor, or a special transfer management agency). Goldhol & Lund (1983), for example, model technology transfer as a bridge-crossing process facilitated by a transfer agent. According to this perspective, technology transfer is a "process...bridging the disparate cultures of the donor and recipient organizations ...involving steps of adaptation and utilization that may change the technology into something quite different from that issuing from the source." The agent is seen as "the keystone to a solid technology transfer bridge." (Goldhol & Lund, 1983, p. 144).
Further developing this perspective, Parker and Douglas (1993) contrast two models of technology transfer. The first is a model of unshielded innovation in which basic research creates innovations that then undergo further development. The second model is that of "shielded innovation" in which a university office of technology licensing assesses the innovation's commercial potential and acts accordingly. In both cases the transfer agency plays a major role: first by mediating the patent rights transfer, and second by actively searching out technologies to be transferred and by finding the potential technology buyers.
Another model-- based on the technology buyer's perspective--views the process of technology transfer from public sector R&D to private sector businesses from a marketing perspective, analyzing business firms as industrial "buyers" (Large & Barclay, 1992). The model analyzes criteria used by buyers in selecting technologies. Among those factors that have the major influence on buying decisions are such characteristics of the technology proposal as user value, patent/proprietary position, prototype efficacy, strategic fit; and such characteristics of the transfer agent or inventor, as business empathy (profit orientation, reasonable expectations about the magnitude and timing of remuneration, communication and interpersonal skills) and credibility.
A second major group of studies takes a different perspective on the technology transfer process and emphasizes the relationships/collaboration aspect of it. Some of the studies of this group address the communications aspect of the problem--patterns of the information exchange, for example. Other studies concentrate on patterns and nature of relationships between the participants in the process of technology transfer, or on factors that facilitate or hinder these relationships.
For example, in the communications perspective, a successful transfer depends not just on a single agent, but rather on efficacy of information flows between a set of individuals or organizations within a complex network of communications paths (Rothwell & Robertson, 1973). This perspective studies not so much the processes of managing the transfer, as the communications and information exchange involved.
Advocates of the innovation perspective argue that the communications perspective errs in viewing technology transfer as a communication process rather than an innovation process. "...the designers and managers of such programs concern themselves with questions of how to transfer technology after it is already developed, rather than how to develop or adopt technology so that it is transferable" (Robbins & Milleken, 1976).
Many other studies can be classified within an interorganizational environment and relationships perspective. For example, an alliance perspective (Lambricht and Teich, 1976) argues that barriers can be reduced by alliance building. The model assumes that the public sector inventor should develop an alliance with a lead user to demonstrate a need in the marketplace. Next, this alliance develops into a relationship with a manufacturer. Because the user has already adopted the idea, it will be easier to demonstrate to the manufacturer the benefits of adopting the technology.
The cooperation perspective (McDonald & Gieser, 1987) studies the processes of cooperation between the parties involved that make the transfer easier. Among the facilitating processes identified are open communication, mutual interdependence, respect and trust, willingness to compromise, etc.
Network analysis (Auster, 1990) attempts to elevate the research of the alliances and cooperation perspectives to a higher level of analysis. It analyzes the whole web of relationships in which the transferring organizations (or individuals), transfer agents, and recipients of technology are embedded. The imagery changes from a focus on pairs of partners to systems of relationships; from the analysis of communications to description and quantification of network boundaries, numbers and strengths of linkages, network density.
None of the above described perspectives and alone provides a satisfactory starting point for a comprehensive analysis of the technology transfer processes, and for generating sound recommendations for practitioners. Some of the perspectives (agent theories, or communications perspective, for example) have limited scope and concentrate on only one of the aspects of the problem. Thus, they can be used as building blocks for a more comprehensive theory, but cannot be regarded as sufficiently all-embracing theories by themselves.
While some of the "linear model" studies make an attempt at integration, their over-emphasis on rational decision-making, treatment of outside factors and environment as "black boxes," and adherence to the pre-determined sequence of necessary steps of the process drastically reduces the practical value of the analysis offered.
Finally, the network perspective attempts to analyze and explain numerous relationships, factors, and outside influences in technology transfer. However, network analysis does not address the questions of goals and outcomes of the process, does not ask why certain network relationships are established, and what are the reasons for certain patterns of development of network arrangements.
Clearly, much work remains to be done before a more comprehensive theory of technology transfer can be successfully developed. Our belief is that a detailed, retrospective examination of a set of technologies that have already undergone the transfer process might help to identify which parts of the existing literature will be most useful to the future development of a more unified theoretical framework.
The study was conducted through interviews with companies that had obtained the rights to new technology developed at the University of Minnesota. Minnesota is a fertile ground for such a study, in that it consistently ranks in the top ten among research universities in the U.S. in patents received. The University's Office of Research and Technology Transfer Association (ORTTA) supplied an initial list of 36 companies for possible study who met the following criteria:
They had acquired a technology from the University of Minnesota within the period 1983-93;
They had paid royalties or licensing fees to ORTTA during that period; and
Informal and anecdotal information gathered by ORTTA staff led them to perceive that the company had a reasonable probability of at least limited commercial success.
From this initial list of 36 companies who had acquired 39 different technologies, nineteen (encompassing 23 technologies) agreed to be interviewed. Of the 17 companies that did not participate, twelve simply refused, two had gone out of business and three no longer employed the principal actors responsible for the transfer. As a result, 53% of the companies contacted (representing 59% of the technologies in question) participated in the study.
A loosely structured, highly open-ended questionnaire was used to guide the interviewing process. Since the research was preliminary and exploratory, with a minimal theoretical background available to guide any precise data collection, we opted for a series of questions that encouraged respondents to provide a broad ranging, yet thick descriptive narrative of the process in which they engaged in order to be able to acquire the technology in question from the University. Roughly two thirds of the interviews were conducted by telephone, and the remaining third were conducted in person. Interviews averaged about 45 minutes apiece, and were supplemented in some instances by the provision of written materials made available by the companies that described their business and the technologies they were developing. Analysis of completed interview schedules and relevant supplementary materials was performed by several researchers independently, with subsequent iterative development of common themes and observations.
Thirteen of the technologies studied (56.5%) were transferred to 10 large companies. Eight of these companies each had over 1,000 employees worldwide, and two others had several hundred. Of the thirteen technologies transferred to these 10 large companies, only two led the companies who purchased them to try to produce products that were in a decidedly different direction from existing product lines. Of these two, only one had succeeded at getting a product to market and even they had yet to make any appreciable sales at the time the study was completed. The other eleven technologies transferred to large companies were complementary extensions to existing product lines.
Nine of the technologies (39.1%) ended up in the hands of very small companies. Two of these companies had 14-20 employees; six others had fewer than five each. Of these eight small companies, five were created by the inventor(s) of the technology for the exclusive purpose of trying to market their invention. Two acquired technologies as a means of venture capital activity, and one used the technology to completely shift the focus of their business. There was also one business involved in the study whose size was uncertain from the data collected.
Table 1 shows the breakdown of the technology transfers included in the study by type of product. Knowledge products (including computer software, videos and the like) make up the largest group of technologies whose transfer process was studied, followed by medical devices, horticultural products, pharmaceuticals and chemical processing products. It is also worthy of note that four of the knowledge products (both videos and two of the computer programs) deal with health and/or nutrition, and one of the chemical processing technologies has potential medical applications. When added to the medical devices and pharmaceutical products, this suggests that well over half of the technologies transferred (13 of 23, 56.5%) were in the area of medicine, health or nutrition.
Five Types of Transfer Processes
We found that it was possible to classify the transfer of each of the 23 technologies in the study into one of five different categories. These categories were developed using the following questions:
·Was the technology initiated at the University or by a private company?
·Was the technology transferred to an existing company, or was a new company formed for the expressed purpose of marketing the new technology?
·What was the nature of the contact and/or relationship between the inventor and the purchasing company that facilitated the transfer?
1. The technology is invented in the lab and sold to an already existing company. The connection between the lab and the company was made prior to the development of the technology, and the relationship between the two was not exclusively devoted to the new technology. Nine of the technologies (39.1%), involving seven of the companies (36.8%), were transferred in this manner.
This set can be further broken down into two subcategories. (a) Six of the technologies (involving four companies) were instances where the inventor had an ongoing working relationship with the company in question that had many more dimensions than just new technology. For example, all four horticultural products fall into this category. In each instance, the horticultural companies have an executive who visits the University of Minnesota (as well as several other midwestern universities) at least twice each year to keep up on a variety of research activities, of which new plant development is only one. The relationships have persisted for years, and remain important even when there have not been any new products developed that might have commercial potential.
In the remaining cases, the faculty inventors had ongoing informal (the inventor was characterized as "a great friend" of the company) or formal (one company employed a faculty member as a part-time consultant, from which they learned of his invention) relationships with the firms to whom they would eventually sell their technologies. All of these cases involved transfers to large companies.
(b) The other subcategory includes three technologies (and three companies) where a previous contact and/or relationship was specifically exploited to facilitate the particular transfer. These did not involve a continuous ongoing relationship, but rather were instances where a relationship or contact initially made for other reasons was activated specifically to produce the transfer. In two cases, the inventor contacted a company representative whom they had met previous at a professional conference. The remaining case was an instance where the company had employed a former graduate student of the inventor, who subsequently contacted his mentor when learning that his company had a need that could be filled by that faculty member's invention. The graduate student/mentor case involved a large company. The conference cases were one small company and the company of indeterminate size.
2. The technology is invented in the lab and sold to an already existing company. A relationship between the inventor and the company did not exist prior to the development of the technology. This situation characterized three of the technologies (13%) and included three of the companies (15.8%).
In all three of these cases, a representative of the company contacted the university about the invention after having learned about it from a formal search of relevant journal articles or conference proceedings, or a formal request for possible new products. In two of these cases, the companies were solely in the distribution business. The other involved a large company who never got the product to market and eventually attempted to sell the rights back to the university.
3. The technology is invented in the lab and sold to a venture capital company. Two of the technologies (8.7%) involving two companies (10.5%) engaged in this type of transaction. Both instances involve very small companies who purchased the technology in the hope of creating new companies around the particular technology. Both companies discovered the technology through a formal search (and hence had no prior relationship with the inventor), and neither had successfully formed new companies for the technology or had developed a marketable prototype at the time the study was completed. Both, however, were continuing their efforts and hoping to get products to market in the very near future.
4. The technology is invented in the lab and a new company is created specifically to sell it. Five technologies (21.7%), involving five companies (26.3%), made transfers characterized by this manner. In all five instances, the inventor was a member of the startup team in the company that was created to sell the technology. In three of these, the inventor created the company in partnership with someone from outside the university. Two brought in partners specifically to provide general business skills, and one brought in a partner for additional skills substantive to the business. One of the remaining two cases was a sole proprietorship, though this particular inventor did not really form a company; he merely sold a few units of his invention on the side and shared the proceeds with the university.
The remaining instance involved a unit of the university that had produced a software program as a result of a series of federal grants. After a number of years of existence on federal subsidies, the unit was instructed to become self-funding, which it has done largely through sales of its computer program. Hence, an independent company was never really created around the new technology, rather a unit within the university was able to continue to exist beyond its years of external funding by selling its new technology.
There are some important similarities among these inventor-created companies. First, every inventor who helped create a company around their invention did so on a strictly part time basis; none of them left their job at the university to devote full time to their new company. Only one of these companies has to date hired a full time employee; that company now has almost twenty employees. Three of the others have two or less, and the special case has at best been able to retain past employees as a result of their efforts.
5. The technology is initially developed by a private firm, but the firm seeks out the university to assist in areas where it has needed expertise. Four technologies (17.4%), involving three companies (15.8%), can be accurately described by this process. One of these companies bought its first technology from the university from a prior relationship, and then turned to the university a second time for joint development of a subsequent technology that it had begun to develop on its own. This particular company has only two employees.
The remaining two companies in this category were quite large, and in two of the instances (involving one company) commissioned the university to participate in further development of the products they had initiated. The other company exploited a prior relationship with a university faculty member to provide needed expertise to complete the development.
It should be noted that, while much of the literature focuses broadly on the role of the transfer agency in facilitating the process, the data in our cases was quite inconclusive in this area. Responses to the transfer agency role were broad and emotional, running the full gamut from high praise to frustration. Consequently those responses are not primary factor in our analysis.
Table 2 classifies the 23 technologies transferred in three ways, each corresponding to one of the three defining questions need above: origin, recipient & relationship.
Summary of Findings
The study provided no evidence that the 23 successfully completed technology transfers had to date made any substantial contribution to either new business creation or generation of new jobs. More than half of the technologies studied went to large companies, and were used either to upgrade existing products, or to extend the existing product lines. In eight cases technologies were transferred to small firms. In three cases technologies were transferred to venture capital firms or intermediaries, and had not been commercialized by the time of the study. In the rest of the cases new firms were created by the inventors-university scientists themselves and serve as vehicles for marketing the invention. None of these firms had grown beyond a part-time employment opportunity for the inventors, and there was only one that provided evidence that any additional hiring would be necessary in the near future.
The applicability of existing linear models of transfer to observed situations also proved to be limited. Only four cases involved transfers of technologies that had been developed and patented by the university to a firm that did not have any relationships with the University prior to the transfer. In these four cases the firms used some form of search strategy to find a needed technology. However, there is no evidence that any of the firms had a well-developed formal search procedure. In the overwhelming majority of cases there was some form of relationship between the university (or individual inventors) and the private firm prior to the transfer. These relationships ranged from long-term friendships and/or co-operation to such less involved forms as interaction at research seminars, university-sponsored events and presentations. To discredit the linear model of transfer even more, in 4 pertinent cases the ideas of products/technologies were generated at the companies and the university only assisted in further development/refinement of the technology.
Results of our study challenge two major assumptions about the existing university technology transfer process: (1) that it plays important direct role in new firm/job creation, and; (2) that it can be described by a well-defined linear sequence of steps (development-patenting-search-transfer.) Our findings suggests that there is a need to extand our study to issues not resolved here. The composition of the pool of technology recipients from a sample of other major research universities should be studied in detail. Ratio of small to big firms, number of new jobs created, rates of growth of new firms created around the technologies in question, and other parameters descriptive of firm and job creation/growth should be documented. In addition, the nature of relationships between university scientists and private firms prior to transfer needs to be documented and classified into strong versus weak, specific technology-related versus general, etc. For universities with long histories of transfers, the importance of elapsed time or of one highly successful transfer in evaluating the process should be identified. A similar analysis should be made for other non-commercial laboratories.
This study would allow critical review of the effectiveness of existing efforts at promoting technology transfer (activities of the university offices of technology transfer, industry liaison programs, extension services, etc.), and suggest the ways of improving the entrepreneurial ventures' ability to benefit from the untapped university potential.
This should lead us to ask about other mechanisms that could be used to give more benefit to new and small firms from the existing pool of technologies. More generally, what can be done to assure that the potential for job creation and growth from technology from are realized more fully?
Our modest set of descriptive data suggests that a significant proportion of transfers of new technologies from universities to private firms flows to large, established corporations. Transfers occur principally through relationships between inventors and contacts in the business community, which contacts existed prior to the transfers.
These observations hint at a minimal role for formal "searching" for new technologies by large companies. Our data suggest that what formal searching occurs does so in companies with internal R&D departments. We speculate that those "searches" may simply represent an outgrowth of the research staff's efforts to keep current in technical developments within their fields. If, in the course of reviewing journals, attending professional conferences, and the like, they come across an invention disclosed by a university, they may pursue that invention if it appears related to current or prospective projects in their organizations. Such pursuit may in retrospect appear to result from a formal search through technical sources, but in fact results from a less formal, perhaps even happenstance, process.
While large companies appear to be a primary outlet for the commercialization of new technologies developed in public labs, our study provided no evidence that such technologies are in and of themselves a major source of job creation. We saw no instances of a technology that once commercialized provided such a plethora of sales that new employees needed to be rushed in to meet the demand, or created a new division within the company, or any other such major organizational and/or economic change. Given that almost all of the new technologies studied here were only minor extensions of already well established product lines within these firms, it is unlikely that the organizational or economic impact of these products will increase with the passage of time.
For small and/or entrepreneurial firms, the cases studied here provide no evidence that technologies transferred from a university create -- over a period of years -- anything but the most minimal levels of job creation or economic impact. Most of the small companies in this descriptive sample were created by the inventors themselves as a means of selling their new developments in their spare time; in no cases did these inventors leave their university positions to devote more time to growing these new businesses, and in only one case was at least one person employed full time to run that business. Only the two venture capital attempts appear to hold any serious hopes of building new businesses with growth potential out of their technologies with the passage of time, and ironically these were the two cases having the most trouble getting any product to market at all.
The evidence provided here, however, advises that scholars and policymakers should proceed with caution before accepting a notion that new or high technology firms are a panacea for new jobs and major economic impact. For both large companies and small, this study suggests that most successful transfers are based on strong prior connections and relationships between those in the university lab and those in the business community.
Linear and arms-length models of technology transfer can explain relatively simple, plannable improvements in existing products. In sports, this resembles a relay race, with its clearly divided roles. Models involving prior and sustained relationships are more like the Americas Cup sailing race, in which victory goes not just to the crew, but to the designer, the backers, and the providers of new materials working in concert.
In the examples here studied, the role of university was to provide incidental access to powerful facilities and knowledge -- in medicine, agriculture, computers and educational materials -- created for its purposes of teaching and research. Would greater commercial access to university people and equipment improve efficiency in transfer of technology? Would such an added diversion of public resources to benefit private firms be warranted? These questions raise important issues for inventors, investors, executives and public policy makers.
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