Commercialization Academy Director for Venture Partners of the University of Colorado, Boulder, Ms. Sally Hatcher, who is my colleague and fellow Technology Transfer (T2) professional, recently described her most effective T2 activities as being something like a concierge service for university faculty and student scientists, engineers and other technical professionals. In my opinion, this service goes beyond the bounds of the university. University T2 activities, like those of Federal labs, reach out to the private sector and often to agencies of state and local governments. T2 activities involve extensive networking achieved by people-to-people contact. In short, T2 is a person-to-person “contact sport”1. Invariably, this involves not only routine contacts, but also education and training, developing direct professional relationships, and establishing trust in the importance, effectiveness and purpose of the T2 mission.
Another challenging aspect of T2 as a contact sport is the on-going need to communicate to individuals representing many diverse disciplines and professional identities who have widely different views of the meaning of science, research, engineering and technology, not to mention T2. Of course, different views usually mean different terminology, different idioms, and different meanings for the same terms.
Meeting the challenges of T2 as a contact sport involves principally building communications bridges, certainly amongst organizations, but more importantly amongst individuals representing those organizations. Since individuals come and go with maddening frequency, these T2 bridges must be rebuilt, refurbished and maintained reliably and consistently over long periods of time. This activity is further complicated from changes in perception caused by the dynamics of politics and subsequent policy and funding changes.
An important prerequisite for building communication bridges and infrastructure to support T2 and its commercialization is the consistent, long-term, repetitive training and education of scientists, engineers, other technical professionals, their managers and political leaders in the importance of the T2 mission and its relevance to technological innovation, invention, entrepreneurship and economic growth. Lecture-type events offered to large audiences from specific organizations can be useful if well-attended. However, attendance at such events is usually disappointing. Relying on such lectures alone is not enough to bring the importance of the T2 mission to those who need it. Technology showcases, workshops and lab tours are also useful, but by themselves alone are not enough to support T2 education and training.
We now arrive at the concept of T2 as being an on-going “concierge service” provided by a community of T2 professionals from both the Federal laboratory system and the academic community. First, consider what is meant by the term, “T2 Professional.” While no formal definition exists, at least that I’m aware of, let me offer some attributes that are desirable and might make a T2 professional easier to recognize:
- Some formal academic background in a field of science or engineering
- Sophisticated understanding of the nature of scientific research, engineering practice, and technology, including their relationships and differences
- Appreciation of the processes by which scientific knowledge, innovation and the accretion of best engineering practices are recognized and admitted to the “technology base” of technical disciplines
- Understanding the relationship between microeconomic [marketplace] principles and the emergence and evolution of technology through its routine and innovative application to problem solving
- Ability to communicate scientific, engineering and technical concepts to non-technically oriented professionals representing different disciplines
- Sophisticated understanding of the multidisciplinary nature of T2 and entrepreneurship
Now, consider the services to be rendered under the “concierge” banner. It begins with a personal request to the T2 office for specific information, such as:
- I just saw something I’ve never seen before. How do I know if it’s an invention?
- I just came up with a clever way to solve a problem that’s been slowing the progress of my research. Can I apply for a patent?
- My tenure as a grad student [or post-doc] is coming to an end. I’ve been thinking about exploring career opportunities in technology entrepreneurship. Whom do I talk to? Do I need further training? Where can I get this training without going back to grad school?
- Do I have any legal rights to something I’ve invented as part of my duties? How do I protect these rights?
- If I write a technical paper or give a conference presentation that includes a description of a discovery, does that mean anyone can steal my ideas? How should I act to protect what I’ve discovered or invented?
- A company [or university faculty member] wants to collaborate with me. What’s the first step I should take?
The list of questions and their variations never seem to end, but they are all variations on recurring themes that T2 professionals, acting in concierge roles, are called upon to address. These opportunities to answer personal questions from research and engineering staff members creates wonderful opportunities to educate and train these individuals in the “mysteries” of T2.
While in some ways, this concierge approach to T2 education and training may seem small-scale and inefficient, it offers several advantages. First, it services a community of technical professionals who have more than a passing interest in the impacts of scientific and technical knowledge and technological innovation once it leaves the lab. The sale of the importance of T2 has already been made, and the consumers likely are eager for more. Second, the concierge model that T2 service delivers allows T2 professionals to interact personally with an organization’s scientific and technical staff in a way that is not available during a presentation to a large audience in a lecture auditorium.
The concierge model allows the building of communications bridges, long-term personal and organizational relationships, and promotes professional respect, especially on the part of the scientific and technical staff for T2 professionals—something that on occasion is found lacking. Finally, the concierge nature of the T2 services, by especially focusing on providing personalized information tailored to individual needs, delivered in appropriate language, lends itself to “word-of-mouth” advertising. This is something that is of great benefit to promoting the importance of the T2 mission.
1 Daniel.Reed, “Technology Transfer: A contact Sport,” BLOG@ACM, Communications of the ACM, October 4, 2010.