Technology transfer is just a subset of knowledge transfer.
Dennis Liotta, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry

Join the discussion

Ideas for Sale

Growing Pains
Resources, competition, and our institutional character

When the focus shifts to the bottom line, basic research always takes a hit.
Margo Bagley, Assistant Professor of Law

New: "If technology transfer offers a solution to the funding crisis in higher education, it does so only in a very limited way."
An interview with Lanny Liebeskind, Professor of Chemistry

Show me the money . . .
1997 licensing income and patents from Emory and other institutions

What is applied research?

How does funding work in the sciences?

Overheard on campus
Remarks from Stanley Chodorow, CEO of the California Virtual University and former provost of the University of Pennsylvania

Academic Exchange December 1999/January 2000 Contents Page

Dennis Liotta is a co-inventor of Coviricil, an antiviral compound that has been shown in clinical trials to be effective in the treatment of the AIDS and hepatitis B infections. As Emory's Vice President for Research from 1996 to 1999, he was a leading advocate for technology transfer.

The Academic Exchange How do you think technology transfer is changing the academy?

Professor Dennis Liotta In my view, it expands the nature of research universities and what we're capable of doing. For example, in the sciences, when we have an idea we believe could eventually be developed into a product or service that could benefit society, we're very limited in how far we can take it unless we involve the commercial sector. Technology transfer provides a mechanism for extending our ability to create and disseminate what we produce in the university. Actually, technology transfer is just a subset of knowledge transfer. That's our business. The university is already in many aspects a business; we should stop pretending
that it isn't.

If universities want to be important players in solving social problems, then they must obtain intellectual property protection on important discoveries. Otherwise, they will never be developed. For example, it costs three to five hundred million dollars on average to develop a drug. No company would take that kind of risk unless it possessed sufficient intellectual property protection to ensure at least several years of exclusivity in selling that product.

AE How do you respond to the concern that it might prevent knowledge-
sharing and collaboration among scientists?

DL Once you seek patent protection, there are really no barriers to publishing immediately afterward. In a legal sense, a public presentation constitutes a public disclosure and therefore would limit your abilities to get intellectual property protection. Don't publish first and then try to patent. You've done yourself and the university a disservice. Patent it first.

AE Do you believe there has been a shift of emphasis from collaboration to competition in academic science?

DL Scientists are inherently competitive. In the sponsored research world, even if you exclude technology transfer, it's naive to think that there's not already plenty of competition.

Technology transfer is just a different kind of competition. I think that these concerns are overblown by people who don't fully understand what's involved in both sponsored research and in technology transfer. While technology transfer certainly involves some restrictions, I don't see it as a major paradigm shift relative to what we have right now.

AE Another concern is that commercial forces might warp priorities away from basic science and toward more market-oriented research.

DL People who accept faculty positions at research universities are generally passionate about their research. There's always going to be a subset of these individuals who, for a variety of reasons, want to pursue a commercialization opportunity.

In my own case, I became involved in aids research ten years ago because of a deep sense of a responsibility to use whatever scientific skills I had to help relieve the suffering caused by this terrible disease. In order to do that, I had to spend time working on development aspects as opposed to just doing basic research. This actually had a salutary effect on my lab, however. We started doing science in a slightly different way-and I think a better way-and we started being a little bit more cognizant of some real-world parameters that made the choice of projects that we focused on better. The projects had high-quality science, but they also had relevance to real-world problems.

Just think: if technology transfer produces a new revenue stream for my lab and for the university, then I'd be able to use it to do the high-risk, highly speculative research that at present is difficult to fund. And the administration could use its share of revenues to enhance teaching and scholarship across all segments of the university.

AE Do you see financial incentives as a major motivating factor for faculty, rather than the passionate pursuit of science?

DL There are both tangible and intangible motivators. Unless there are incentives for faculty to do the enormous amount of work that it takes to bring a product or service to the marketplace, it will never be developed. On the other hand, if I had enough funds to do whatever I wanted, that could badly skew the system. Obviously, several important questions remain unanswered.