University Tech Transfer: Do the Good Die Young?

One of the greatest challenges for university technology transfer offices (TTOs) trying to maximizing commercialization of university technologies is convincing faculty researchers to disclose their inventions, reveals the survey results described in a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. According to Richard Jensen (Notre Dame), Jerry Thursby (Emory University) and Marie Thursby (Georgia Institute of Technology), the authors of The Disclosure and Licensing of University Inventions, the "higher quality" or "most productive" faculty are most often the least likely to be bothered with the distraction of pursuing commercialization.

The paper present as one plausible explanation, the fact that 71 percent of university inventions require further research and development in a more applied direction than the original scientist or engineer may wish to expend time and resources. The disclosure process itself is time-consuming and takes many researchers away from their work.

As a result, many TTO directors believe the best technologies or hottest prospects remain on the floor or shelves of research labs. Many TTOs suggested substantially less than half of their university’s technologies are disclosed for potential commercialization. In addition, the survey results suggest much of what is presented for commercialization is of low quality.

The timing for when an invention is disclosed — if very early at proof of concept or later with a lab-scale prototype — also varies by the "quality" of the faculty researcher and the particular field, the study finds.

Applying a game-theoretic model, the authors find that most TTOs, now numbering more than 200 across the U.S. almost have built into their structure a flaw preventing maximization regarding technology commercialization. They suggest the problem pervades the academic environment more generally as well. Only 34 percent of TTOs see additional sponsored research funding as an important licensing outcome — while 48 percent of central administrators at universities and 75 percent of academic inventors did. Conversely, 71 percent of TTOs and 69 percent of administrators saw royalty streams as extremely important while only 41 percent of the inventors did.

The fact that TTOs more closely reflect the interests of the administrators than the faculty may not be too surprising. TTOs report to the central administration, not the faculty or individual departments, and the performance measures for TTOs are often geared toward directly quantifiable items such as royalty and licensing income. The findings may raise the question for readers: can TTOs be designed in such a way to more effectively balance the interests of the administration and faculty? If so, would they achieve greater success in technology commercialization?

The paper also reports "universities with higher academic rankings for their faculty have a higher proportion of disclosures licensed in the proof of concept stage." Alternately, "we also find that universities with greater net income have a smaller proportion of disclosures in the proof of concept stage." The authors suggest that TTOs are focusing on those inventions that require the least amount of time to get to market, most often those at lab-scale prototype, to yield royalty and licensing income (their main motivating factors). As a result, "successful" TTOs as measured by short term monetary return may discourage disclosure in inventions at the proof of concept stage which is when the "higher quality" researchers in fields such as medicine, nursing and engineering are more likely to report.

The Disclosure and Licensing of University Inventions is available for purchase from NBER at:


Copyright State Science & Technology Institute 2003. Information in this issue of SSTI Weekly Digest was prepared under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. Redistribution to all others interested in tech-based economic development is strongly encouraged — please cite the State Science & Technology Institute whenever portions are reproduced or redirected. Any opinions expressed in the Digest do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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