Making Tech Transfer Work

How America’s idea factories can work with CEOs to commercialize more technology.

May 15 2014 by William Holstein


Laura Kilcrease has founded or helped to found dozens of companies on the basis of technology created inside the University of Texas at Austin. The technologies have ranged from three-dimensional printing devices to nano-ink for solar energy panels. In creating so many companies with names such as Exterprise, Hart Intercivic and LNNi over a quarter of a century, she has emerged as something of a legend in Austin entrepreneurial circles, having also founded the Austin Technology Incubator, worked at the renowned IC2 Institute and founded an early stage venture capital company called Triton Ventures, where she is managing director.

But as entrepreneurial as she is, Kilcrease is frustrated that more technologies developed inside the university do not make it into the commercial marketplace. “There is a vast investment going into the research, but we’re getting only a small amount of that research commercialized,” says Kilcrease. “Most technology institutions end up commercializing very little of what they have because their people are phenomenally good at solving their problems, but they are not necessarily thinking about how it applies to someone else’s problems in the marketplace.”

Kilcrease’s frustrations are part of a national conundrum—various arms of the U.S. government in 2012 spent $138.9 billion for research and development (R&D) at the Department of Energy’s 17 national labs, at research institutes, at universities and elsewhere, according to the Congressional Research Service. That spending over the years has helped make the U.S. arguably the most biotech and genomics industries, GPS satellites and other fresh ideas. However, at a time when the U.S. is still crying out for jobs, has all the spending fueled the growth of enough small- and medium-sized technology companies; and therefore, has it created millions of needed jobs? That answer, it seems, is overwhelmingly, no.

Different “idea factories”—labs, institutes and universities—face slightly different issues. Of the DoE’s energy labs, only three have been set up to facilitate the flow of technol- ogy to the private sector; but the other 14 remain focused on defense-related research, much of it classified. Research institutes, often situated in the medical and biotech arenas because of billions of dollars in support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are under greater pressure from Congress to commercialize technology; and hence, they have opened more “translational” institutes—but only with limited success. Universities, aside from a relative handful, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University, tend to focus on publishing their findings in research journals and do not invest enough in technology commercialization. Most do not allow faculty to spend 20percent of their time on outside projects, as MIT does.

The core problems of identifying great new ideas, patenting them, nurturing them through different stages of development and allowing them to bear fruit in the marketplace are similar. “Fundamentally,” says Kilcrease, “it is the same set of issues.” Part of the problem starts at the very top, in terms of how the U.S. government allocates its billions of R&D dollars.

“There’s a deep bias toward pure science,” says Mark Moro, senior fellow and policy director for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There’s an overvaluing of the life sciences by comparison with the physical sciences; and then, there is a kind of denigration of applied or commercially relevant work. Those are big problems.”