The Responsibility of Technology Transfer

August 10, 2001

Scott Cowen
Phone: (504) 865-5201

It is a fact of life that universities carry with them a number of responsibilities. Certainly, we have an enormous responsibility to our students, as well as to our faculty and staff. We have a responsibility within the greater community of higher education.

And, as you often hear me say, we also have a responsibility to our community, to our state, to our region. When we think of that responsibility and how Tulane University fulfills it, the things that generally come to mind are volunteer programs, service-learning opportunities, programs in medicine and public health, and other areas in which Tulane people work individually or collectively with groups or organizations in New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf South.

One important area of potential community impact that we dont often consider is in the area of technology transfer. The commercialization of university research doesnt entail a journey back to the distant past. In just 20 years, there has been explosive growth in this area. Universities, hospitals and federal laboratories have become quite adept at crafting value from the knowledge discovered in the course of research.

According to statistics developed by the Association of University Technology Mangers, 20 years ago there were approximately 30 tech transfer offices at universities across the country. Today, there are more than 275. In 10 years, revenue generated by universities from licensing increased by 450 percent, from $122 million to $675 million.

Tulane University is a part of those numbers. By 1985, the Tulane Health Sciences Center had created the Office of Technology Development. When I became president two and one-half years ago, I was pleased with the revenue generated by Tulanes intellectual property. In fact, when you look at our licensing income compared to other universities, we rank highly and compete well with larger universities with higher research expenditures.

We have done an excellent job of translating our research results into commercially viable products. But something was missing: Our ability to offer options to faculty who preferred a more hands-on involvement in further developing their innovations, and a way to make our activity benefit the local region. The companies that were licensing our technology were located outside Louisiana. We are now poised to change that.

I view technology transfer as the most dynamic way of transferring the knowledge created within our labs to the public sector. I also view it as our responsibility. If Tulane can create a climate for new, technology-driven businesses in this region, we will have provided a great benefit to the city and the state.

How do we create that climate? By making a concerted effort to help our faculty, should they desire, create businesses and companies to exploit their scientific endeavors. This will involve putting in place infrastructure to locate capital, to match the innovations with interested parties, and even nurture fledgling businesses either within Tulane or in an incubator.

The "multiplier" effect to creating companies is well documented. Money stays in the area, other service-oriented businesses and vendors profit, construction and infrastructure investment follows, and desirable jobs are created. There are challenges to implementing such a strategy. As the steward of public funds, we have to guard against conflicts of interest or even the perception thereof. In the clinical area, where patients are involved, this is particularly important.

The popular press reports unflattering stories about universities and inventors who have a financial interest in the products being developed. The underlying allegation is that greed or promises of downstream financial reward are driving the science and skewing objectivity and ethics. In this climate, our challenge will be to conduct our business openly, with full disclosure, in a manner that is beyond reproach. We must also have policies in place to address these concerns.

In mid-April, the University Senate approved modifications to our intellectual property policy, which was originally adopted in 1985. We are presently developing an equity policy that will formalize the ability, for both Tulane and the inventors, to take equity in companies created around Tulane technology. We also need to refine our conflict-of-interest policy to reflect recent federal guidelines and regulations. We must have mechanisms in place to review and manage potential financial interests.

I believe we can embrace new business opportunities in a way that underscores the mission of the university and integrates these activities into the academic culture. What benefits might we derive? First and foremost, we will be contributing to the betterment of humankind through the development of new products, processes and ideas.

Through industrial collaboration, we will gain exposure to challenging problems and opportunities that will create future inquiries for academic science. We can tie our educational and research programs to national and regional needs. In the longer term, we can generate support for research and research infrastructure, assist in the placement of our graduates, and enhance our institutional reputation.

The phenomenon of creating companies around our technology is too sweeping and too important to ignore. I look forward to working with you on this and to continually moving Tulane to the forefront of research universities.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000