If youre responsible for creating or revising your institutions intellectual policy (IP) statement, you may be wondering where to start. You can review policies from other institutions, but without a little background, the whole process can seem overwhelming.
We created this primer to give you a place to start. We interviewed IP professionals from a variety of backgrounds, and discovered that although they didnt always agree on the elements of a good policy, their ideas frequently overlapped.
First, what makes a good IP policy good?
Simply put, according to Phyl Speser, President of Foresight Science and Technology, Inc., a good IP policy encourages innovation. "An IP policy should help the innovation process run smoothly and efficiently, providing as few roadblocks possible."
Describing the ideal IP policy, Fred Erbisch, retired Director of the Office of Intellectual Property at Michigan State University, says it is, first and foremost, clear. A good IP policy removes gray areas, and spells out each players stake, rights, and responsibilities. Erbisch says, "The policy needs to clarify such issues as who can publish, what they can publish, and under what conditions." Similarly, a good policy addresses exactly who owns what, and how the IP office will return rights to the inventor if they decide not to take a product forward. Based on his experienced as an IP administrator, Erbisch believes that anticipating all possible complications prevents problems in the long run.
Donald Meyers, professor of engineering management at the University of Missouri-Rolla, says that by design a policy should motivate the inventor to use the university's systems for transferring technology. "Some people decide to do their own patenting and keep the university out of it. And sometimes that's appropriate. But even if the inventor isn't sure the university has any rights to the invention, it's often a good idea to let the university take care of the patent and administration of the license. The university usually has more credibility than an individual. In effect, there is no risk, and the rewards can be substantial."
So, establish some rules and stick to them no matter what?
Not exactly. Along with clear guidelines, Erbisch says you need someone officially in charge of bending the rules. "The problem at a lot of places," he explains, "is that no one is in charge. A committee writes the policy, and the faculty senate approves it, but the policy doesnt specify who will manage it." So even though its important to make clear rules, you also have to have someone who can decide when to make exceptions.
A policy is just a piece of paper.
Maxwell Morton of Grayhead Associates concurs. "What you write in your IP policy is important. But the people running the technology transfer office are more important."
"Its not a good idea to have lawyers running the licensing office. Their business is to keep you out of trouble," he explains. "Theyre not going to take risks, and this approach is not friendly to innovation." Morton feels that a better model is a university technology transfer office that caters to the needs of faculty and students. "Lawyers should be service providers. The office needs to treat faculty in a way that encourages them to innovate. If it doesnt, theyll say Why bother?"
If not lawyers, then who should staff a tech transfer office?
Phyl Speser maintains that the director of a tech transfer office should have a background in industry, since she is responsible for bridging the gap between the industrial and academic worlds. She should be a good deal-maker, with experience in licensing. Speser suggests a diverse staff, including people from different disciplines, recent graduates, and retired people. "If too many of the staff are highly experienced," he says, "they take the process for granted. Its important to keep the outlook fresh."
Tech transfer staff should see themselves as specialized professionals. They should be active members of professional organizations such as the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), the Licensing Executives Society, or the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer.
Fred Erbisch adds that the director of a tech transfer office can potentially raise the money to pay his own salary. He should be a people person, since he will work with inventors (potentially fragile people, who are bringing their lifes work to the table), administrators, potential licensees, attorneys, and others.
Donald Meyers believes that in a university setting, faculty often function as entrepreneurs. "After doing a lot of talking with grantors and contractors," he says, "they begin to feel that they have the authority to decide what should and shouldn't go into the agreement. The inventor, after all is the one who sees the product's full potential, and he or she should be involved to some degree in the entire technology transfer process. However, responsibilities need to be made clear and limits drawn by strong administrators."
Should the technology transfer office focus on making money for the university?
Our respondents dont think so. Morton believes that tech transfer administrators should consider long-term goals. "Policies can encourage faculty to innovate by not making the hurdles too high," he explains, "especially in schools where theres not much history of entrepreneurship. The institution should invest in building moralein getting the faculty to want to invent. It should focus on sharing equity, and on building a win-win situation. Its okay to be tough with the big companiestheyre used to negotiating. But with faculty and students, its more productive to educate and encourage."
The effectiveness of a technology transfer office is closely aligned with the directors attitude. Morton asks, "Is the purpose of the policy to catch the 20% who are bad guys, or to foster the 80% who are good guys? Is it a punitive document intended to prevent stealing from the university, creating a police state?"
Phyl Speser declares that a director of technology transfer should be able to articulate his offices main thrust: is the office working to maximize revenue, or is it focused on faculty satisfaction, facilitating recruitment and retention? One way to judge a tech transfer office is by examining the ways in which it is evaluated: Is success measured in terms of revenue brought in? Number of deals done? Number of disclosures processed?
Speser adds that some universities, particularly land-grant institutions, focus on regional economic development. At these institutions, even if an idea is hot, if it doesnt hold promise for creating jobs regionally, it wont be supported. Speser believes that the most consistently successful technology transfer offices are those that focus on faculty satisfaction, since these offices tend to be more adventurous in the projects they will support.
Still, commercialization is important.
Some faculty believe that colleges shouldnt commercialize faculty and student innovations. Fred Erbisch says that people need to be educated in the value of technology transferits not just about bringing in extra dollars for the institution. "Often," he claims, "schools have something of value to society. It costs money to develop it, so they cant just give it away." He adds, "If they dont act right away, part of a process might be patented, which then limits what they can do with it. You have to educate people about why the process is important."
Donald Meyers adds, "In a university setting, commercialization means continuing research involvement for the inventor, more research contracts, and a continued flow of royalties to the inventor and the institution. And commercializing a product within a university is usually a better deal for everyone than in industry or the government."
Back to the policy, what should it include?
A lot depends on the institutions culture and needs, as well as the professionalism and mission of the technology transfer office. Phyl Speser says that inventors want to know, first of all, if theyre going to make any money or not, then if theyre going to get credit for what they have invented. Ultimately, the policy should describe who really owns what. Here are a few of the issues it should address:Participation: To whom does the policy apply? What makes someone fall under it? Is everyone employed by the university aware of the policy? Do they sign an agreement at the time they are hired? What happens if invention takes place off university property? What documentation is required upon disclosure? What triggers a disclosure? How do you know it has been triggered?
Relationships: Should the inventors relationship with the technology transfer office be active or passive? Is the inventor a co-decision maker, consulted throughout the process, or should she plan to disappear from the scene after the deal is signed?
Timing: Exactly when does invention occur? How much time passes from the disclosure to a decision? From the disclosure to a deal? If the process is not moving, at what point can the inventor get his work back?
Due diligence: Are there provisions in place to appeal a decision on an invention? Should a dispute arise later, can the inventor access records?
Royalties: To whom do they apply? Who owns them? What is owned? What percentage is owned? Who keeps it?
Follow-on: Once the deal is signed, what is the relationship between the inventor and the other signers? Does the inventor get paid to help with know-how? What happens if there are subsequent related or unrelated deals? Is there an equivalent of a "finders fee?" What is the inventors involvement with licensing? Is she reimbursed for labor?
Residuals: Who gets residuals on the technology? When a product is patented, does the inventor give up rights of ownership on subsequent improvements?
Conflict of interest: What constitutes a conflict of interest? Does the policy allow an individual to study and work at an institution while running her businesses?
Speser recommends establishing a sequence of tasks to help add form to these elements. Use the menu below to access important considerations for the various stages of invention.
Donald Meyers maintains that it is good policy for licensing officials to document the criteria they use in technology transfer decisions, both to aid their own decision-making processes, and to help others in the process understand how they arrived at those decisions.
According to Fred Erbisch, the standard formula for sharing revenue is 1/3 for the inventor, 1/3 for the university and 1/3 for the licensee. This can vary depending on the nature of the product and the institution. He says that, although some universities promise a response to an inventor within 90 days, doing a thorough patent search can take from 12-18 months. During this period, the tech transfer office needs to keep working on the process, and keep the inventor informed.
The professionals we consulted agree that clear communication is the most important element of the technology transfer process. The written policy should spell out solutions to a variety of potentially hazy issues. However, the flexibility and openness of the technology transfer staff may be even more important than what is written in the document.
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