If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
In the commercialization of university research, it’s important to recognize that not every research project becomes a new venture—nor should it. For every research project, there is a range of possible outcomes. This range is often lost when federal commercialization policies, universities technology transfer offices, and enterpreneurship programs focus too much on the number of startups launched or the amount of licensing revenue received in a given year.
The primary focus in our Entrepreneurship Academies is on helping each researcher understand and explore the best path forward for their particular research project:
Starting a new venture For some, the research can be clearly applied in a new product or service that has the potential to revolutionize a market. Here, the science provides a compelling new value to the identified consumers, provides a new company with a competitive and defensible advantage (often through patents or trade secrets), and threatens to change the industry enough to enable them to compete with big companies and their existing advantages. Of course, starting a venture requires significant time and resources, which the researcher will have to commit to or the venture will fail. Additionally, the researcher may have to relinquish their position within the university in order to work for the new venture.
Licensing the technology to corporations When the technology is relatively self-contained, as is often the case with biotech or biomedical devices (but can also happen in engineering), the option of patenting the technology and licensing it through university technology transfer offices can be a valuable and preferred option. While this option looks simpler, there are several drawbacks. First, there is no guarantee that royalties will ever be realized—the licensee often decides not to pursue the technology or improves upon it before its release (thus relinquishing the license). Second, without the researcher’s direct involvement in identifying potential licensees, in marketing the technology to them, and in supporting its successful transfer, there is little chance of successful licensing.
Partnering with corporate R&D Where the ideas are clearly improvements on existing products and services already in the market, and where the impact and value to users is greater if it can build on or combine with what’s already being offered, the best path forward is often partnering with existing companies to integrate the science into their existing offerings. This can be done through direct research grants, through consulting agreements, or through the hiring graduate students trained in this science or technology.
Moving from basic to applied research in the laboratory When moving the science out of the laboratory depends on (sometimes dramatic) changes in other elements of the market, or when the science is so basic that it requires more work to prove its value in particular applications, the best path is to return to the laboratory and identify the best next set of research questions to answer that drive the science towards applications. Hopefully the decision process has informed the researchers of what needs to be done next.
Moving on It can also become clear that, while the science is good and the findings publishable, there is no clear and compelling value proposition for users in the near term. This can happen because other competing technologies on the market are as good or better at solving current problems or because, as the Yet Min Chiang, the founder of A123 Batteries, once said, “science typically provides one-dimensional solutions while customers work on multi-dimensional problems.” In these cases, the researchers often recognize the best next step is to move on to other projects and problems.
In working with university researchers and research, it’s critical that each of these options not only be recognized and considered but also that, depending on the research findings, each of these options are potentially the best next step. Too much emphasis on counting startups or chasing licensing revenue can undermine the commercialization process.
That said, without identifying a best path and pushing forward on it, the default tendency of many in the university is to move on to the next science or engineering project.
I’m going to be sharing this with colleagues on both side of the academic/industry fence. …actually has a Thanksgiving theme too!