A better approach to generating commercial returns from University Research
Recently, the Australian Financial Review ran an article about the CSIRO discussing why the people who pay for publicly-funded research should enjoy greater access to some of the tangible outcomes.
The author Adir Shiffman mentions that taxpayers essentially own intellectual property created by publicly funded research because taxpayers fund it. He goes on to suggest that a great way to increase the impact of these inventions would be to allow entrepreneurs access and use the intellectual property.
Adir also mentions that technology transfer people are difficult to deal with and I have my opinions in that space, but this is not the purpose of the article.
The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of how things are done then make a few suggestions that might increase the successful invention hit rate and also increase industry engagement which is minimal in Australia.
Normally a scientist would apply for research funding from a lab budget or grant. The funding is then used to look at some new phenomena, and if things go well then the technology transfer office may file a patent on any discovery or results and try to market it.
Marketing the invention might involve putting a brief summary up a webpage, presenting the results at some industry conference, trying to build a relationship between the scientists and industry through a series of events. All of this takes up lots of time and costs a lot of money. My understanding is few of these inventions get very far even when marketed using ‘entrepreneur and industry friendly’ schemes.
If you have funding and prefer more tangible research outcomes then there are a few things you can do before starting experiments to improve your odds of success.
First, you will want to identify a handful of companies in your industry with enough money. Yahoo! Finance can be used to identify publicly traded companies in your industry and determine how research-friendly they might be.
For example, if you are into electric cars Yahoo! Finance will tell you Tesla Motors (TSLA) “designs, develops, manufactures, and sells electric vehicles and electric vehicle powertrain components” and spends $232 million on research and development.
Photo by oskay
Next, it is useful to look at how Tesla might do things. Publicly-funded research often starts with a literature review, start yours by going to Google Patents and searching “inassignee:”Tesla Motors, Inc.”
This will give you a good overview of Tesla processes and you might have a few ideas while reading them. Reading patents is also useful as someone needs to spend thousands of dollars just to file a patent while journal articles just need to get accepted.
Next, you will want to contact someone at the company. The front desk may not be good at following up and emails sent to generic email addresses may not get returned. Yahoo! Finance lists the names of key executives and Elon Musk is on LinkedIn.
If that doesn’t work there are a few other tricks. Make sure to keep things simple, a couple sentences asking to start a conversation on research into electric cars could get you a phone call, but remember to not disclose any ideas.
Photo by jurvetson
If you can get a meeting with a senior person in the R & D office, you might spend as much time as they will give talking about their biggest challenges and the areas they need to make breakthroughs.
This entire process might take an hour and if things go well after that you’ve got (1) a good idea of valuable research opportunities and (2) the attention of a key decision maker at a company that may partner with you or purchase intellectual property down the road.
Alternatively, one could continue to use current methods where most publicly-funded intellectual property gathers lots of dust, there is limited industry engagement, and after spending a pile of time and money you might get a phone call or meeting with someone who may not buy what you are selling.
A little bit of due diligence and spending more time on the problem rather than the technology in the early stages can pay dividends in the long run.