The Innovation Economy Requires a Well-Funded Tech Transfer Ecosystem:
It Appears Washington Agrees

By Ian McClure, AUTM Incoming Board Chair
June 16, 2021

Since the dawn of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, research institutions have been expected to produce commercial and societal impact from federally funded research without matching funding support for the necessary infrastructure. It is an unfunded mandate.

Technology transfer support from the U.S. federal government has been close to zero. As a result, institutions are largely left to fund technology transfer resources, forcing funding incentives that may be central to the university’s overall needs. This is a big reason tech transfer professionals often talk more about license revenues than products produced, jobs created, and lives saved.

The public and its elected representatives rely on universities and institutions’ research advancements and technological discoveries – especially those federally funded– to generate lifesaving and life-enhancing impact, unrelated to the income to cover any necessary costs of the process. Yet, intellectual property protection (IP) and technology transfer are required to advance innovation to market, and it is essential that ownership of IP and management of the technology transfer process remain at the institution where the innovation occurs – as the Bayh-Dole Act stipulates.

The proposed US Innovation and Competitiveness Act (USICA), formerly the Endless Frontier Act, could change that dynamic. In the Senate version passed last week, Section 2109 sets a precedent by mandating, for the first time ever in a federal bill, funding support for academic technology transfer infrastructure and capabilities at research institutions. This legislative endorsement that building research technology transfer strength in the country is worthy of overwhelming bipartisan support highlights the seismic shift in perspective related to the importance of research and effectuating its impact.

Section 2109 was initiated by a small group of technology transfer leaders, including AUTM. We called it the Focused Action Supporting Technology and Economic Response (FASTER) proposal, which was architected to advance research to market FASTER.  The idea is that this funding is made available to eligible research institutions that opt-in. Opting in is important to counter concerns that an institution may not want any additional oversight or reporting responsibilities. Yet we should not shy from accountability. We have been able to preserve respect and trust in what we do for over 40 years. This is an opportunity to change the incentives to support our work, and what we can do through metrics that level-set expectations and even improve our own performance.

A central theme in FASTER, and hopefully in any final version of the bill, is to significantly broaden and diversify the institutions offering technology transfer resources to its innovators. We aimed to set aside significant funding amounts for small-to-medium sized research institutions (between $10M-$100M in research expenditures) as well as for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions. While specific earmarks are not in the final Senate version, its language lets any institution submit a proposal for up to $1 million for technology commercialization efforts and resources. This is a game-changer for hundreds of underrepresented institutions that can, hopefully, provide services that will protect IP and offer education, partnering, and startup creation resources on their campuses with ideas and research findings that otherwise may only reach the public domain or a dusty shelf. Our Kentucky Commercialization Ventures program, which provides technology transfer resources to all our smaller regional universities and community and technical colleges, has proven that innovations exist with real economic and societal impact potential at these institutions. My hope is that this bill can help prove this everywhere.

The work has only just begun, with the House of Representatives next considering their version of the bill. If you believe, as I do, that this funding support is an enormous opportunity for innovators, our profession, and the public that relies on these technological and scientific advancements to improve their lives, it is important that you make your voice heard. Your Congressional representatives will be considering this bill for months to come, and this is a key element to effectuate impact from the increased spending on research and innovation. Watch for updates, supporting toolkits, and more from AUTM that may help you inform your administrative leadership and federal relations staff. We have an opportunity to see the largest increase in federal funding for our profession since 1980.

Ian McClure is AUTM’s Incoming Board Chair and is the Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation and Economic Impact for UK Innovate at the University of Kentucky.
Supply Humanitarian Aid, Don’t Waive Patent Rights
By Laura Savatski, AUTM Board Chair
May 19, 2021

At a time when health care access is crucial, we have become increasingly aware of the disparities and inequities that exist in developing countries and our own. This global pandemic has caused huge devastation that is felt even more keenly in the developing world, where access to clean water and basic medical care isn’t always available. Our supply chains have been stressed to the breaking point as governments fight for the same products. Despite a recent decision by the White House to support the waiver of patent rights, it is not access to patented technology that is the most pressing issue here, but broad and equitable access to health care for the sick, access to know-how, a workforce to aid a high-tech manufacturing process, trade protocols, and the sourcing of short-supply products to make vaccine.    
 
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic became a global health crisis, AUTM leaders and Members discussed how best to encourage broad humanitarian access to technologies needed to fight the pandemic. The COVID-19 Licensing Guidelines published in early 2020 and adopted by almost 100 well-known organizations outline a time-limited non-exclusive free license strategy to encourage the sharing of information and technology to develop urgently needed products. Companies have successfully developed vaccines in record time and received regulatory clearance for emergency use. Some of the vaccines rely on novel mRNA vaccine technology and patented ideas that have transformed the delivery of life-saving solutions. 
 
Waiving patent rights ignores the realities that access to a patented technology is just a first step in a complex process. Many countries are not set up with manufacturing and trade processes to allow them to quickly scale up technology production to the level needed during a crisis. Furthermore, oversight into infrastructure safety and efficacy is not as well-developed in some locations, risking fraud and reducing confidence in the product. Even if well intentioned, waiving patent rights will not be enough to quickly and safely produce vaccines and other health products needed. In fact, by waiving protocols that protect the technology development, we may end up doing more harm than good.
 
Patents and innovation have close ties, and the existence of patent rights and a system to reward innovation contributes to more innovation. In countries without a strong patent system, innovation does not happen at the rate we see in countries with established intellectual property processes. Countries looking to develop their economies often start with a strengthening of their patent and trade offices. The United States, through its Constitution, created patents to encourage technological progress and the public dissemination of knowledge by securing a time-limited right to an invention as part of our foundation. This system has served us well in its hundreds of years, contributing to the development of vaccines, antibiotics, telecommunication, new materials, and many other transformative and life-saving solutions, often created in times of great need.
 
Like now.
 
The recent global focus on COVID-19 vaccines and other products is a scary rollercoaster ride for many of us. We are in an incredibly difficult time, trying to balance patent rights with global health access. Much is at stake in getting the vaccines to everyone – the health of the world, economic stability, and our hope of a return to “normal,” just to name a few.
 
As practitioners, we know the patent system works to drive innovation forward. Think about where we would be without it. Would inventors share their technologies in a public document like a patent application, which gives step-by-step instructions for creation, if they could not protect the sizeable investment in development of the idea for the lifetime of a patent? Would they instead hold all this knowledge privately, stifling progress in their field and reducing the ability for those in need to get help? Would investors back the development of novel products if there was no return on their investment, which is what happens when the patent system cannot be relied upon to be predictably protect their investment? Universities may no longer partner on research discoveries with companies that produce life-saving vaccines if the patent on that discovery would be meaningless because those rights could be waived at any point. Think of how many innovations of the last few hundred years would have never come to light.
 
It is now, more than ever, that we need a strong and predictable patent system so that innovation is valued and incentivized to provide us with more access to technologies that can positively impact our health and our lives.
 
To save lives during this crisis, we should focus on critical issues of equitable access to medical care and vaccines in all communities, humanitarian aid through the supply chains that can provide what is needed where it is needed most, and the ramp up of investment in manufacturing capacity in more locations around the world, through established companies with proven track records of producing safe and effective doses. Making smart, thoughtful decisions throughout the entire process, rather than focusing on waiving patent rights just makes more sense.