Every university wants to provide societal impact and value through its academic’s research. One way to deliver this impact is by translating that research into a commercial offering. However, identifying the valuable technologies and finding the right academic to speak to, in the labyrinth of university departments and teams, can be difficult.
Many academics, with their focus on writing and publishing papers, completing research, submitting grant proposals, and managing staff and students, have little interest in adding more to their workload and are unlikely to contact the university’s technology transfer office (TTO) to commercialise their research. With the onus often then on the university or outside market itself to navigate this labyrinth and discover new technologies, different approaches in the structure of university’s TTO have been considered and implemented.
Different approaches bring distinct challenges
TTOs typically focus on adding societal impact and value by spinning out companies based on ground-breaking research, helping their academics engage outside of the university, and earning licensing and royalty income from the technologies developed during an academic’s research. Depending on the university, the TTO can either exist within the institute’s research office, be a separate entity, but still exist within the university or be outside the university’s structure. The benefits and challenges of each of these models vary – for TTOs within the research office, greater insight can be obtained about the academics, their research projects and the technologies they develop. However, the research office’s focus on grant applications can lead to the tech transfer process being ignored until the end of the grant. This can cause challenges, as encouraging academics to commercialise their research once the grant has run out or remembering what was created during the grant period can be difficult. For TTOs further removed from the academic departments, identifying the latest technologies that have been developed and identifying who to speak to, is a challenge. However, this distance can also mean a greater focus on industry collaborations and technology transfer is possible as there is less focus on grant applications.
One challenge universities face, no matter where the TTO is based, is developing industry partnerships and collaborations, particularly if the university has a special area of expertise e.g. Loughborough University is known for its specialism in Sport Science.
Although TTOs are often successful in creating industry partnerships, they frequently focus on developing income streams by licensing and earning royalties for technology and research that has already been created, not in developing new collaborations for carrying out research projects. To tackle these challenges, some universities are setting up dedicated concierge job roles focused primarily on creating these industry research collaborations and partnerships.
Introducing the concierge role
The role of the concierge is to identify what researchers within the university’s areas of expertise are working on, that could be of interest to industry, before approaching industry contacts to obtain funding and research partnership agreements. This process enables universities to receive funding at a much quicker rate and from a more diverse source, decreasing the time between achieving funding and starting research projects and reducing the university’s reliance on government or charitable funding.
Structuring the concierge role
There are some things to consider when introducing the concierge role. Firstly, who should these concierges report to and in which department should they be based? Like the internal positioning of the TTO, there are varying advantages and challenges depending on what decision is made. Some universities choose to position their concierges within the TTO. This can ensure the TTO has a better understanding of the research projects being carried out in the university’s specialist area of interest, providing a better pipeline of technologies for the TTO to commercialise. It also means the TTO can ensure the rights of the university are protected in any research or technology outcomes that are agreed as part of the industry/ researcher collaboration agreement. However, a limitation for the concierge is that they can be a step removed from the academics and their research department which can result in over-promising to potential collaborators. This provides them with the challenge they were hired to overcome – namely the challenge of navigating the university labyrinth and establishing relationships with researchers.
An alternative option is to have the concierge report directly to the researchers as this would help the concierge establish close working relationships with the researcher. However, researchers are highly dependent on research grants for laboratory and staff funding, so wouldn’t typically have the income or ability to permanently fund the concierge position though some institutions do make it work. Having a permanent source of funding and job security is vital for the concierge role to ensure they are embedded within the research department and are able to build long-lasting working relationships with the researchers and industry. Therefore, most universities with a concierge role, usually ensure the concierge reports into the research office or directly to a vice-chancellor. This provides the concierge with the security and authority they need to successfully build working relationships with the researchers and industry, whilst also ensuring the university leadership is aware of the agreements and collaborations being made.
Researcher – Industry balance
Having a concierge report into the research office can also help prevent one of the main challenges of the concierge role - becoming too focused on industry needs. For a successful industry/ academic research project partnership, the project needs to provide tangible outcomes that the industrial partner can use and develop, but it also needs to be of credible scientific interest to the academic researcher, otherwise the researcher (and university) won’t benefit from the project. Some concierges can be so keen to establish partnerships with industry that they can forget to consider the researcher’s needs. This can lead to the concierge overpromising to industry and having to then backtrack after discussing the project with the researcher. Reporting to the research department, can mitigate this problem, by ensuring the concierge is firmly reminded of the researcher’s focus and aims.
Navigating a university’s labyrinth of research departments and academics can be challenging, particularly when trying to create the maximum amount of value and impact for an institute. Having a dedicated resource who can navigate this labyrinth, can not only provide the university with insight into its academics’ research, but could also help them identify and capitalise more quickly on industry research partnerships and assets and opportunities for commercialisation.