, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 343-363

Why university inventions rarely produce income? Bottlenecks in university technology transfer

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Abstract

As intended, universities have gained ownership to an increased number of inventions from their labs after the enactment of Bayh-Dole act in 1980. But, how well are the universities taking advantage of the provisions of this Act? One aspect of this question is addressed empirically in this study. An analysis of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) periodic Licensing Activity Surveys of 1995–2004 indicated that the annual income generated by licensing university inventions was 1.7% of total research expenditure in 1995 and 2.9% in 2004. Some consider this and the rate of commercialization of university inventions to be too low. A premise of this study is that the slow rate of commercialization of university inventions may be due to the lack of adequate trained staff and inventions processing capacity in University Offices of Technology Transfer (UOTT). This paper describes an empirical study of the non-legal, technical, and legal invention processing capacity of US UOTT and its implications. A survey questionnaire was sent to 99 randomly selected US research universities. Seventy-five percent of the respondents mentioned shortage of staff for non-legal and legal processing of inventions. More than a third of the respondents claimed that, in 2006, they failed to process more than 26% of the inventions due to insufficient processing capacity in the UOTT. The study includes multiple regression models to estimate the effect of staffing on performance variables (i.e., Provisional Applications Filed, Patent [non-provisional] Applications and Licenses Executed) and “Inventions Not Processed” by the UOTTs due to staff/budget shortages. It is argued that, when short of staff and budget, UOTTs will be reduced to devoting their resources to ensuring patent applications are filed and patents are issued at the expense of marketing of inventions. Further, high-tech inventions are difficult to market because, often, there are no ready markets for them, especially if the inventor had no pre-invention contacts with a potential licensee. High-tech inventions originating from university labs may need market space/niche identification, new market creation, and the translation of the lab result into an “investor friendly” business plan; most UOTTs may be significantly short on these skills. Recommendations of this study are: first, an in-depth study of universities that are prolific in licensing inventions (40 or more licenses a year) is necessary to understand the reasons for their success in the context of UOTTs capacity to process inventions. Further, all federal agencies sponsoring university research must earmark a small percentage of each grant exclusively for commercialization purposes at the university. The paper offers multiple options for the effective use of these funds. The paper also offers several avenues for future research.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the useful suggestions of a reviewer.