Like a cable TV news show free-for-all replete with raw emotion and derisive accusations, the creative class has recently been confronted with a lively debate between two of its most influential members, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Association of University Technology Managers. They may not be household names, but the disagreement between the two organizations highlights an important public policy issue that must be addressed in order to strengthen America's leadership in innovation, economic growth, and job creation.
Academic researchers should be "unleashed" from the "inefficient, monopolistic" technology transfer offices at their universities, leaders from the Kauffman Foundation suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last November. They then applied the coup de grâce in a January-February 2010 Harvard Business Review piece by calling for "any inventor professor to choose his or her licensing agent—university-affiliated or not—just as anyone in business can now choose his or her own lawyer."
Predictably, the AUTM, a professional association representing 3,500 technology transfer professionals, wasn't pleased by the "nuclear option" proposed by Kauffman. The AUTM's president fired back with an opinion piece of his own on Businessweek.com in February, arguing that the current system is performing well and that university technology transfer offices are key partners in commercialization and entrepreneurship.Kauffman then followed up with this rebuttal in March.
QED: One Possible Solution
I give both sides credit for elevating the esoteric but critical issue of technology transfer in the popular media. Many potentially life-changing technologies under development today are born in university labs—but without a coordinated and targeted strategy for commercialization, they can't move forward to the next stage of development. And their promise for enhancing the lives of patients or stimulating the economy goes unrealized. But like many provocative exchanges in today's 24/7 news cycle, these quick back-and-forth volleys summarize the problem without offering any viable solution.
Here is one solution that's already in place and working at Philadelphia's University City Science Center, where I serve as president and chief executive officer. It's the nation's first multi-institutional proof-of-concept program. We call it QED, after the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum, or "proven as demonstrated," and it is intended to bridge the funding gap, popularly known as the "Valley of Death," between research grants and private investment while advocating proof-of-concept development projects within the life sciences. QED was designed as a partnership between academic researchers, their technology transfer offices, investors and venture capital firms, and the vibrant life science industry in our region. Projects with high commercial potential are selected for funding and provided with the commercial guidance needed to ensure that scientific ideas address "investment grade" market needs.
It's this comprehensive and collaborative approach that sets QED apart.
The Science Center, with the guidance of Kauffman and the participation of several AUTM members, launched QED in April 2009. Today, a total of 17 colleges, universities, and hospitals located throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware participate in the program. More than 130 research proposals have been submitted so far.
Just the Beginning
QED provides a model to organize and deploy the wealth of scientific, technological, and entrepreneurial talent and resources in our region—which transcend city, county, and state boundaries—toward a common goal of more efficient and effective life science commercialization.
But this is just the beginning. The QED model could (and should) be replicated in other regions in Pennsylvania and beyond, and in other sectors of the technology economy such as energy and cleantech.
Between the opposing positions that Kauffman and the AUTM have staked out, QED and programs like it offer common ground, shared objectives, and an operating model that all participants in the tech transfer process should embrace.