Are these Top 5 complaints about tech transfer offices justified?
You often hear people lamenting the state of technology transfer in the UK. I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what they are complaining about. After speaking to several of the leading experts and stakeholders in tech transfer, including Cancer Research Technology, Isis Innovation, The Wellcome Trust, J&J Innovations, The Francis Crick Institute, Edinburgh BioQuarter, The Wellcome Trust and Imperial Innovations, for our magazine Drugs & Dealers, I’ve highlighted the most commonly cited problems with TTOs. Here they are:
1) TTOs don’t have enough commercial or industrial experience
TTO’s need to be ‘market led’, not ‘technology led.’
Mike Capaldi of Edinburgh BioQuarter puts it this way: ‘I do think it is a mistake to fill technology transfer organisations with people that have no commercial or industrial experience - that could lead to bad advice.’
What Mike is saying is that some TTO’s are becoming out of date and out of touch with the ‘market’ because they fail to hire people with market know how and experience.
Not only does this lead to bad advice, it can also lead to the next most oft heard cricitism:
2) TTOs too often over value IP
In other words, TTO’s have unrealistic expectations of what IP is worth. Mike would argue that this is a direct consequence of not being market led: If people are disconnected with the market, they tend to have an unrealistic expectation of what IP is worth. What’s more, if the TTO is out of step with the current market thinking, often discrepancies will arise around valuations that ought not to be.
3) TTOs lack a holistic perspective
Tied to this perception that TTO’s overvalue IP, and possibly a direct cause of it, could be that TTO’s are too narrow in their focus. TTO’s don’t always look beyond the borders of the UK for competitive technologies. As Allan Marchington, of the leading VC, Apposite Capital put it: “There may be other IP, universities working on similar things in other regions that could be superior. ‘ Allan would like to see TTO’s developing a much more holistic view of the IP landscape.
4) TTOs don’t understand what VC’s really want
Successful TTOs reach out to VCs and investors in the right way. So what is the right way? Well, I aksed Allan what he thought: ‘They have an understanding of what a VC is looking for in an idea, they package it well and they’re pretty open and realistic in what they have. Their IP policy is clear and they give the academics the right advice and guidance in improving the idea they have.’ Some TTO’s do this very well. Unfortunately, however, many do not.
5) TTOs need to develop and incubate ideas and technologies for longer
The criticism here is that TTO’s need to incubate tech longer before engaging with third parties. Engaging too early can lead to a multitude of conflicts around IP, funding and risks damaging relationships with investors and industry.
So, are they justified?
Personally, I think the criticisms levelled at TTO’s are overstated. Everyone I interviewed was at pains to point out that while some TTO’s were culpable of some of these crimes, there were plenty of examples of TTO’s who excelled.
I also think the argument of IP overvaluation is a flawed one, and is largely a result of a misunderstanding of the terms. Tony Hickson, in all of his 10 years at Imperial, can only remember two straight IP asset licensing deals that foundered on the basis of an inability to agree the valuation. The reality is that deals very rarely fall down on valuation issues.
As for developing ideas for longer, well, there needs to be financial assistance in other areas. I don’t think TTO’s can manage it all on their own, so they can’t be held solely responsible for this.
Technology transfer managers have the difficult task of balancing and accommodating a complex set of commercial and academic priorities and concerns. Sometimes they get it wrong, and yes, there is certainly more that can be done, but on the whole the consensus from the crowd we interviewed for our magazine was that they are fighting the good fight.
One thing is clear, though. It’s incumbent on the tech transfer profession to prove themselves and dispel the myths.
These and other issues will be discussed at our evening event on Thursday, 4 September at Imperial Innovations Incubator. Sponsored by Marks & Clerk LLP, the event will feature the speakers from Edinburgh BioQuarter, Imperial Innovations, Wellcome Trust and Apposite Capital
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