With record-breaking amounts of money in tech investments streaming around the globe, you would think that investors are funding nearly every innovation possible. Yet investment dollars often overlook one of the greatest of all innovation incubators: the university system.
The same environment that gave us everything from flu vaccines to touchscreens to Google has countless equally outstanding innovations awaiting behind institutional gates. With decreasing federal funding and essentially stagnant commercial R&D, it is more critical than ever that universities and industry evolve and adapt to bring scientific innovations to market.
Life of a University Scientist: Close to Home
I am fortunate to come from a family of brilliant doctors and scientists. My father is Charles Helmstetter, a retired Florida Institute of Technology and Roswell Park Cancer Institute cell biologist. For nearly 40 years, he was one of the most prolific and successful recipients of National Institutes of Health funding, arguably the most competitive research dollars to obtain. He made many discoveries throughout his career, the most significant being a system to produce “synchronized” bacterial cells all of the same age for cancer and other studies – the “baby machine.”
Yet, none of his discoveries made it to market. And he didn’t care – he even posted instructions on how to build your own baby machine on YouTube! He was motivated by the purity of science, of discovery, to share openly with integrity, to advance science and ultimately, in his case, cancer research. His goal was to galvanize his scientific contributions by publishing his discoveries in academic papers to be further leveraged and developed by his peers.
My uncle, F. William “Bill” Studier, a retired SUNY-Stony Brook and Brookhaven National Laboratory geneticist and National Academy of Sciences member who, among many other significant contributions, was one of the pioneers of slab-gel electrophoresis — a mainstay for modern biotech labs — echoed similar sentiments. “It’s to everyone’s benefit to patent discoveries that have commercial application and it’s a good idea to make it easy for researchers to apply for a patent,” he said in a Brookhaven article, “but my work is not aimed at commercial applications. I’m interested in basic research.”
I would argue what these two researchers did toward addressing some of the greatest global challenges was more important than commercialization of their marketable discoveries, yet there clearly was opportunity missed.
Let’s take a closer look at three of the challenges behind stalled or stranded university innovation.
Publish or Perish
The university tenure system has long been viewed as a significant barrier to an entrepreneurial or commercialization mindset with faculty. The tenure system, which primarily rewards teaching and publication with career stability and advancement, often encourages this culture. The insinuation is that commercialization is, at best, a distraction. While I’m not here to debate what is and is not unadulterated science, I will say that there is a false trade-off in this line of thinking, one that is accompanied by great consequences.
No Funding or Time
I see it again and again: groundbreaking research stalled at universities after federal funding is exhausted – even with discovery objectives achieved. From game-changing vaccines to environmentally sustainable fertilizers, innovations stall out long before realizing their potential to help humanity. Most science is federally funded, and these funds generally run dry before real-world application can be achieved. Scientists publish and move on to their next endeavor, often leaving innovations stranded.
Increasingly, however, researchers make connections with private industry to obtain “applied” research and development funding. With this industry funding comes the potential for expectation misalignment: Businesses prioritize real-world proof and speed-to-market, which doesn’t typically offer scientists enough time to fulfill their goals. Often there is a direct, inverse correlation between the time required to achieve commercial success and industry’s willingness to fund the associated research. Proof varies by industry and in my world of agtech and animal health, it could mean proving vaccine efficacy in a target species, such as cattle, for a vaccine that was only funded through the rodent test phase. Or it could mean a new crop trait grown successfully in growth chambers and greenhouses that still needs proof in real-world field conditions where the crop will grow, to prove resilience against weather, disease and natural predators.
Risk-averse and ROI-sensitive, businesses tend to offer researchers a window that is too short to prove their concepts for the real world and achieve their scientific objectives. Recently, I had a faculty member tell me that he is “tired of being treated like a contractor,” unable to stray from a designed scope of work in an effort to yield better results. The pace of business often won’t allow the scientific process to take the time it needs. And that’s not the only tug-of-war between the university and commercial sectors.
Intellectual Property Control
Intellectual property (IP) is another big reason innovation can languish on academic shelves. As the IP rights owner, universities can license innovation to one or more entities in return for fees and royalty streams. Understandably, industry often wants ownership, or at a minimum, sole and exclusive rights, to any IP developed as a result of their funding. This position is often in conflict with university policies around developed IP and rights ownership. Many research programs have died on the vine because universities and industry couldn’t come to an agreement over IP rights and associated economics. The research is then shelved, the investment dollars can’t make it to the institution or business, and we find ourselves staring into a situation that seems unbridgeable.
The Way Ahead
The importance of innovation creation cannot be overstated. Within the university environment, this innovation creation must be supported by an entrepreneurial culture and successful technology transfer of discoveries.
There’s hope. The Millennial generation is coming into its own as a group of scientific innovators — one with a distinctively entrepreneurial mindset. New models of cooperation are evolving between the academic and the commercial sector. In our experience, even when the research doesn’t fulfill its stated objective, new innovations can be harvested — and potentially commercialized — along the way.
For example, we recently worked with Kansas State University and the University of California-Davis to develop a new line of heat-tolerant wheat. Ultimately, the hypothesis wasn’t supported, but in the process of trying to establish this trait, the research team discovered new tools and processes. When industry and academia align, magic can happen, given enough time.
To create a bridge and funnel innovations into society, universities and industry will have to adapt and evolve, closing the gap. Here’s a few thoughts on how:
- Consistent Expansion of the University Incentive Structure
Each university has a certain percentage of faculty time that can be used to consult for industry. Encouraging more faculty to work with industry and incentivizing such work as part of the tenure equation will open the doors for more innovations to fly free from university shelves.
In the modern environment where we have become more and more dependent on universities for innovation, I would argue that patents, licenses and commercialization should be on par with teaching and publishing when considering tenure and career progression. Though there has been progress in this direction, it has been slow and limited. Universities must establish and support a culture that rewards “lab-to-market” behavior and success. Only then will we see increased alignment and collaboration with industry partners.
- Give Scientists Time
Businesses tend to treat scientists like contractors, but science does not run on the same logic system. It can take years to properly test an innovation, with course corrections and pivots along the way. Businesses balk at the funds involved in this lengthy pursuit. This presents an opportunity for investors to get in the middle, extending research funding beyond the critical basic research and discovery window.
- Collaborate Around IP Rights
As the recent CRISPR-Cas9 lawsuit demonstrated, licensing rights can become a messy court battle when an invention is released before IP is secured. Litigation can delay the potential of technology. Securing IP rights before making research publicly available helps avoid such costs and delays. As a best practice, researchers should be encouraged to secure IP rights under preliminary claims, then publish after the research is complete. In addition, it is critical that universities and industry enter IP negotiations with open minds and an objective to create success on both sides of the collaboration equation. Demands such as unrealistic fees or blanket exclusivity can stop an IP deal in its tracks
Nobody wants to see advances stuck on shelves when they could be promoting benefits in the world. Evolving the relationship between universities and industry is one of the most powerful ways to launch innovations into the hands of the public. Better cooperation and new best practices will also, in aggregate, speed the national innovation engine by creating and furthering the adjacent inventions that naturally proliferate in the research process.
As my uncle said, “It’s to everyone’s benefit to patent discoveries that have commercial application.” By bridging the valley between academia and the marketplace, the US will not only remove a barrier but find new ways to retain global leadership in science itself.