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As president of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), the largest association of technology transfer professionals in the world, I’ve watched (and participated in my own office) with great interest as the effects of the world economic downturn on our profession have unfolded. Tis is an exciting and challenging time for academic technology transfer.

It should surprise no-one that the economic downturn continues to have a tremendous impact on universities. Our institutions are cutting back in numerous ways due to reductions in endowments and, for those of us who are publicly funded, loss of state financial support. In addition, federal funding for research is flat, and is likely to remain that way for the near future. Te level of federal funding for basic research is what differentiates the US from the rest of the world and provides the lifeblood for the new inventions and technologies that come from our academic laboratories.

The work of technology transfer offices

Te term ‘technology transfer professional’ includes myriad professionals in academia and industry who are responsible for managing the assessment, protection, marketing and transfer of scientific findings from one organisation to another, for the purpose of further product development and commercialisation. We have law degrees, graduate degrees in a wide variety of sciences and engineering, or MBAs, and we work in offices as varied as our institutions are diverse, but we have one common goal: to ensure the successful transfer of technologies developed in university laboratories to commercial entities, so that they reach the public as new products and processes across all disciplines and industries.

Technology transfer offices work with their institutions’ faculty and staff to identify new innovations. Te first notice of an innovation oſten arrives at the technology transfer office in the form of an invention disclosure. Te technology transfer office evaluates the invention disclosure to determine the technology’s commercial potential, protect IP through patents and other methods, seek licensees and execute agreements that support commercialisation. Te AUTM Licensing Activity Survey is our annual report that tracks licensing income and startup activity. Te survey looked at licensing activity through fiscal year 2010—disclosures were flat in 2009 and 2010. Is this because of the slowdown in increases in federal funding? Is this a portent for the future raw material for our members? Only time will tell, but we must continue to educate our inventors on the value of their research and the overall technology transfer process.

Te responsibilities of academic technology transfer offices are rapidly increasing and diversifying, in particular as the focus from both federal and state level on creating startups has increased. Many of our offices manage entrepreneurial activities ranging from assisting

faculty startups in a variety of ways (business planning, help with seeking finance, legal assistance, etc), through employing mentors or entrepreneurs in residence for day-to-day advice, all the way to managing business accelerator facilities. Some offices manage translational research funds to develop early stage technologies to a more marketable stage.

While technology transfer professionals welcome and recognise the value of these newer initiatives, it is a concern that the core business of managing and licensing IP has become less visible and perhaps not as ‘glamorous’. AUTM research shows that the head count of licensing professionals in technology transfer offices is down. Patent budgets and gross expenditures are down. Te fact is that without a vibrant and competent group of licensing professionals in an office, deals may not be done in a timely and professional manner and expenditures on entrepreneurial activities may be wasted.

Because technology transfer offices work with early stage innovations, it oſten takes years before a product hits the market. Along with technology transfer professionals, many in the industry and the investment community are concerned about increased, or inconsistent, government regulations for product approvals, which continue to slow the speed at which therapeutics make it to the market—in particular, and most recently, medical devices and diagnostics. Investors are leaving the healthcare sector due to the time it takes for a return on their investment to come through, if ever, for ‘safer’ investment sectors such as IT, communications and energy.

Many venture capitalists are running from the US market, and others are working with European and other markets. A recent article in Bloomberg Business Week points out that life sciences venture capitalists are, increasingly, focusing on later stage innovations. Where will the funds come from for the further development of early stage life sciences technologies? Who will be willing to take the long-term risk to stay in this business?

Te National Institute for Health has made some changes to its financial conflict of interest regulations. Tese changes expand, and add transparency to, investigators’ disclosure of significant financial interests, with new public

World Intellectual Property Review January/February 2012 21

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