The process of taking inventions from university research and turning them into patents that can be converted into products and startup companies is long and complex. Given the uniqueness of each university's research environment and its surrounding ecosystem of businesses, alumni, donors and entrepreneurs, nailing down "best practices" is not easy, either.
But this week, Tech Launch Arizona, the University of Arizona's office dedicated to commercializing the inventions born of the University's labs, took the lead and hosted a conference of experts in technology commercialization from across the country.
"Commercialization by Design" drew more than 40 of the brightest minds in the field and met for two days at Old Main on the UA campus. The results of the discussions will be published in an upcoming volume of Advances in the Study of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Economic Growth. The series is co-edited by Sherry Hoskinson, director of the Wheelhouse at TLA.
Talks at the conference focused on four specific topics, each corresponding to a different paper in the upcoming volume: how technology commercialization impacts the environment for research; its importance and role in attracting and retaining top faculty and students; its impact on regional and global economies; and how to best measure such impact.
"Technology commercialization has been measured in terms of numbers, such as invention disclosures and licenses," Hoskinson said. "Together with this amazing group of people, we’re learning that alongside the traditional commercialization perspective, broadening our approach to optimize the university’s intellectual property can translate to even more meaningful valuation.
"It’s more than just achieving traditional metrics," she said. "We need to understand what’s important to all the stakeholders in the ecosystem and address those needs."
The field, known traditionally as "tech transfer," has changed dramatically over the past decade, according to David Allen, vice president of TLA. Through this discussion, he has continued to develop and expand his perspective on all of the factors he and his team can affect through their work.
"With a breadth of engaged people that touch commercialization in multiple ways, through the papers and discussions, we’re able to see the evolving trends and develop solutions for the persistent challenges," Allen said. "This meeting reinforced the notion that a good understanding of all the factors involved — the institution, its faculty and leadership, the community, the network of entrepreneurs and businesses, and the economic forces at play — suggests that we (TLA) are going in the right direction and moving at a pace that’s going to lead to real, broad-based benefits."
A new wave of synergies has emerged, Allen said, and the benefits to stakeholders are many. Commercialization "provides a pathway" for businesses to connect with university-level research and has become a "deliberate outcome."
Under Tech Launch Arizona’s leadership, the UA’s technology commercialization enterprise is thriving more than at any other time in the University’s history. As detailed in TLA’s 2014 Annual Report and Roadmap Update, the UA recorded 188 invention disclosures, realized $1.6 million in revenues from intellectual property and spun out 11 new companies. According to a recently released report, the UA Tech Park and its resident companies have an annual economic impact of $2.33 billion on Pima County’s economy. The Tech Park has emerged as a major center for the testing, evaluation, demonstration and application of University and industry-generated technology.
Georgia Tech professors Jerry and Marie Thursby, who attended the conference, are leading researchers who have been tracking university commercialization efforts and performance for decades.
"Does the process of moving technology out of the university and into the private sector — which also requires faculty to continue helping the firms — does that reorient the university?" Jerry Thursby asked. "To date, we can't see evidence that this has changed the fundamental culture of universities."
As Marie Thursby said, "Researchers gain from practitioners and vice versa. It's an interesting dialogue."