Why Does Tech Transfer Matter to Predominantly Undergraduate Institutions?

Retrieved from NCURA MAGAZINE – August 2020 – Page 49
By Sylvia Bradshaw

What’s “under the hood of research administration” when considering technology transfer, and why does it matter to those of us working at Predominantly Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs)? Hmmm, a story comes to mind. At my previous institution, Dixie State University (DSU), I met a retired gentleman named Dr. Wayne Provost. He enjoyed a lifetime of success and had the patents to prove it. Dr. Provost was visiting campus asking for the chance to mentor the next generation of inventors. Of course, I asked the inevitable question, “What patents do you hold?” He immediately pointed to the insulin pump on my hip and said, “Well that’s one heck of a story!”

As I listened to his adventurous tales of testing the corkscrew which delivered the minute pressure of insulin in the first insulin pump (using himself as a test pilot), I was struck with the humbling realization that I was talking face to face with the man who literally changed my life. As a young Type 1 diabetic, I was told not to plan on ever having children but the pump altered that directive. My first pump now sits in a shadow box in Dr. Provost’s office at the DSU Atwood Innovation Plaza (funded by an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant), alongside a picture of my family, complete with 5 kids and 2 grandkids. Yes, I am profoundly grateful his research found its way through the technology transfer process and was not left in a research lab collecting dust.

The Atwood Innovation Plaza at DSU, a small teaching institution, now boasts of having applied for more than 100 patents and secured half of them in the last few years (yes, that is a lot for a PUI). The ideas for these patents have come from the faculty, staff, students, and the community at large. Fast forward a few years, DSU is now partnered with my current institution, Southern Utah University (a rural PUI), on another EDA-University Center grant where we work together to address economic development through entrepreneurship in the southern Utah region. Yes, PUIs definitely have pockets of brilliant ideas that warrant the tools to successfully transfer innovative technology into the commercial enterprise.

Now, let’s consider the realities – do I have specific expertise in conducting an in-depth prior art search and analyzing technology for plausible marketability? Even if I do possess the capability, do I have the time to engage in this activity? No, I certainly don’t (on either account); yet like all other great research administrators, I do know how to collaborate. Finding the right person with the skills and tools to “work beside me under the hood”is certainly key to at least providing a “jumping off point” for our innovative researchers. These key strategic partners can be found both internally and externally.

“PUIs definitely have pockets of brilliant ideas that warrant the tools to successfully transfer innovative technology into commercial enterprise.”

PUIs come in all shapes and sizes, and usually also with a specific niche. Many PUIs do have Tech Transfer Offices within their institution, while, others are still navigating the question, “Why tech transfer at a PUI?” The short answer is “retention of revenue,” something of utmost concern in today’s environment.

So, what do you need to know to claim access to tech transfer capability? Start with the basics, protection of intellectual property. If you’ve got a researcher who discloses officially through a routing form or, more likely through an informal discussion, that their research has patent opportunity, refer them immediately to someone who can help complete a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and a provisional patent application. This may be the institutional legal office, a business or law professor, a Tech Transfer Office at a neighboring institution, or simply a local patent attorney. Our role as research administrators is to first ask the question, “Is there a possibility of a viable patent application resulting from this research?” If so, use your skills and steer the researcher in the right direction to obtain the tools needed to at least get the tech transfer engine sputtering towards the road of success.