Tech transfer blighted by 'blundering jobsworths'

Master of Trinity says technology transfer offices can be more hindrance than help

March 21, 2013

University technology transfer offices are often staffed by “blundering jobsworths” who are preventing academics from passing on their research to industry, according to the master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Sir Gregory Winter, the founder of a number of companies that have commercialised the production of antibodies, said that the offices were “more of a problem than a solution” and should stop trying to micromanage the relationship between business and academics.

Delivering a presentation at the Commercialising Scientific Inventions event, held in London on 6 March and organised by the thinktank Politeia, Sir Gregory said that the offices often sought to “impose themselves between the academic researchers and industry”.

“If industrialists want to talk to scientists they’d like to talk to them directly, not talk through someone,” he argued.

He recounted conversations with businesses that had told him they would “go nowhere near commercialisation [of research] because you’ve got to talk to those guys” in technology transfer offices.

The majority of offices were “very good in some ways but fall short in others” and were generally headed by “terrific people”, he stressed.

But he added that lower down the hierarchy, “there are a whole series of people behaving like blundering jobsworths”.

Sir Gregory - who stressed he was speaking in a private capacity - said that offices used the wrong metrics of success, such as the number of patents filed or companies started, “rather than the commercial bottom line, which is revenue created, profit or loss, or local jobs created”.

“The lack of a profit motive can lead to a bureaucratic attitude,” he said. “We’ve got to encourage the vibrant and risk-taking culture seen in the US.”

The offices often overvalued the inventions brought to the table by academics, making it difficult to get commercialisation off the ground, he said, adding that it was often hard to know how much the innovation was worth at an early stage.

The technology transfer offices should limit themselves to being “dating agencies”, making introductions between willing academics and businesspeople, he said.

They could also be useful for setting up collaborative centres with industry and arranging seed funding for firms.

Alternatively, they could be supplanted by independent, commercial organisations, set up with either private or government funds, that would take over the role of transferring research to business themselves, Sir Gregory suggested.

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