The Cross-Border Biotech Blog

Biotechnology, Health and Business in Canada, the United States and Worldwide

Technology Transfer at Canadian Universities

The technology transfer office (TTO) lies at the interface between university researchers and the university’s external environment, including industry and government. The presumed role of the TTO has been to mobilize knowledge and foster research relationships between academia and industry, and in doing so support the commercialization agenda of the university by monetizing its innovations and technological assets. It is becoming more and more evident, however, that there is a misalignment in the expectations that the government has of the TTO and the role that the TTO actually fulfills.

In a rather informative opinion piece published in Trends in Biotechnology (Cell Press), Tania Bubela and Timothy Caulfield carry out a series of in-depth interviews with 20 senior technology transfer personnel at six Canadian universities and two research hospitals located in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Their findings give us a first hand look at what purpose TTOs in Canada currently fulfill. Importantly, the piece also gives us insight into the minds of technology transfer professionals and what role they believe they serve as agents of knowledge mobilization. Bubela and Caulfield, in the context of life sciences, ask questions to probe the following areas:

  1. The “role of TTOs within the broader social mandate of their research institution
  2. The “nature and source of commercialization pressures
  3. If the “metrics used to assess the success or failure of TTO activities fairly reflected its role within the broader structure and mission of the research institution
  4. The “major challenges faced by TTOs in meeting the expectations of an increasingly complex and collaborative innovation environment in the life sciences

Some of their findings are surprising. Contrary to what would be expected given the commercially-minded mandate of TTOs, a majority of technology transfer professionals held ideological views of research and knowledge dissemination believing these exist primarily to serve the public good. In stark contrast, almost all of those interviewed believed that the government views scientific research as a mechanism to promote economic growth. This finding suggests that technology transfer personnel are conflicted between their personal beliefs of the role of the TTO and those held by the government.

All TTO staff believed that pressure to commercialize university assets had increased substantially in the previous 10-15 years. In line with this observation, Industry Canada made their expectations clear when, in 2002, former Health Minister Allan Rock stated:

“I am particularly encouraged that the universities have agreed to double the amount of research they perform and triple their commercialization performance by 2010, and increase training for graduate researchers, in partnership with government and industry.”

Despite all interviewees being cognizant of the pressure to commercialize, questions surrounding certain metrics including numbers of invention disclosures and material transfer agreements, value of IP created, and licensing revenues, revealed that increasing commercialization pressures have not successfully translated to increased commercial output.

Perhaps at the root of the disconnect between TTO personnel and the government are the fundamentally different views they share on the nature of innovation. These different viewpoints result in a different subset of metrics to quantify the success of technology transfer activity.  Current metrics used by the government (which the AUTM influences) assume a direct path of innovation. These include measures like the number of patents filed, number of licenses granted, licensing revenues, and the number of university spin outs created (irrespective of lifespan or profitability). In some cases these metrics do equate with commercial success, where in other cases they reflect quantity rather than quality. These metrics have predominated because they are the simplest measurements of commercial activity and are easily digested by government policy makers. TTO personnel generally agreed that current metrics poorly capture the broader societal benefits provided by technology transfer activity. Should innovation metrics be adjusted to reflect the circular nature of innovation? As technology has progressed, the complexity of collaborations and research relationships has followed making it increasingly difficult for traditional metrics to measure the success of technology transfer activity. It may be time to adjust.

Perhaps government policy makers do recognize that the metrics they use to assess TTO activities are inadequate, but aren’t sure how to remedy the problem. Even the technology transfer personnel interviewed admitted that designing new metrics is difficult. In an ideal world these metrics could take into account tacit knowledge flows, the migration of researchers and post-docs between institutions, and accurately dissect the complex webs of research relationships that have become ubiquitous. This is simply just not the case. A new generation of metrics is currently being brainstormed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Bubela and Caulfield point to one Canadian university that has exemplified itself in the creation of novel metrics for current day innovation. The University of British Columbia’s University Industry Liaison Office (UILO) has become somewhat of a pioneer in the field. They have generated metrics that assess non-traditional impacts of technology transfer activity using a group of ‘impact based metrics’ incorporating academic, societal, economic, financial, and political considerations. As worded on the UILO website:

“By placing less exclusive emphasis on financial returns to the University, and looking increasingly at how UBC research can impact society and support Canadian jobs, industry productivity and innovation, the UILO is evolving its practices from a transactional based system to a system based on developing ongoing industry relationships.”

The approach of the UBC-UILO is more in tune with the current state of technology transfer activities in Canada, which, based on the described interviews, have a strong focus on promoting the social and academic missions of the university. The view that the university primarily exists to drive economic growth is short sighted. Universities contribute to society in many ways above and beyond commercialization and play an important role in innovation and knowledge sharing. This outlook has placed unrealistic expectations on the shoulders of the TTO, and propagated the notion that the TTO exists primarily to convert university research to profitable commercial outputs. Although commercialization is one of the ultimate goals of university research, this research does not necessarily translate to immediate commercial output or economic return that can be measured with simple metrics. This is especially the case in today’s day and age where complex multifaceted technologies requiring several parties and significant amounts of time to develop are becoming more common (ie. microarray technology).

So, who has the correct view of the role of research and technology transfer in Canada? Neither side is right or wrong. Both the government and technology transfer personnel have valid standpoints. The difference in opinion seems to stem from the fact that the TTO, in reality, focuses on proximate goals within a broad context whereas the government has its eyes on the prize at the end of the road. For the good of innovation in Canada, the TTO, the university, and the government, must reconcile their differences and begin working together to develop new metrics for the assessment of technology transfer activity that more accurately reflect its value.

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