AUTM CEO Speech - Stephen Susalka
Our great organization has been around since 1974 – a time in which technology and technology transfer were in their infancy – comparatively speaking. In fact, our entire organization – then called the “Society of University Patent Administrators” was brought together by the hard work of just nine visionaries that saw the beginnings of university technology transfer and recognized the importance of a profession needed to accelerate the transfer of this new field. SUPA got off the ground with its first national meeting in 1975. It attracted 75 attendees – a number that would easily fit into just the first two rows of this ballroom.
Fast forward to 1980 - a pivotal year for technology transfer, and the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act – which allowed university ownership for federally-funded technologies – fundamentally changing the playing field. Tech transfer was in its infancy but this is where SUPA was hitting its stride with the creation of educational courses to train young professionals tasked with evaluating, protecting and commercializing university-owned inventions. It’s a commitment to education that continues to this day with the 90+ sessions offered here over the next three days.
But SUPA’s leadership realized that technology transfer was more than just “patent administrating,” so in 1989 they changed the name of the organization to the “Association of University Technology Managers.” But throughout, AUTM has been there to support and grow the field.
The 1990s were a time of significant growth. AUTM expanded the resources available for tech transfer professionals by offering regional meetings, and a licensing activity survey to track the field’s trends and our collective successes. But like many 20-year-olds – we thought we were invincible and that outside influences would never affect us.
This licensing frenzy hit a brick wall with the 2008 recession, which affected companies, universities and the local and regional governments in one fell swoop. Almost overnight, companies became reticent to license unproven and risky technologies and the valley of death expanded precipitously. Meanwhile cash-strapped universities were more dependent than ever on tech transfer revenue. And to top it off, state and local governments were relying more than ever on new venture development through universities.
Over the next decade, the technology transfer field adapted to these external conditions with multiple new initiatives including:
- A focus on early-stage accelerator and derisking funds to bridge the valley of death;
- A renewed focus on creating and nurturing start-ups to better advance early stage technologies; and
- Better engagement of industry counterparts earlier in the process;
We were smart and we were evolving. And in 2017 we changed our name from the “Association of University Technology Managers” name to the more inclusive “AUTM“, recognizing that many of our members hail from outside universities – including many industry and governmental counterparts – and what we now do is significantly more than “managing technologies.”
So where are we going?
AUTM and the profession has had a profound impact on the well-being of society. No doubt every person here has been positively impacted by inventions commercialized from universities, hospitals, research labs, and governmental labs. But as AUTM eases into its mid-life years – what do we want our legacy to be, and how do we get there?
I see big changes on the horizon– all critical for the continued health of our profession: and they all contribute to a comprehensive national model to support early stage, federally-funded research that encompass all aspects of development.
What does this look like?
For starters, we need to ensure the steady development of the next generation of innovations, and that comes from broadening the sources of early stage research funding.
Simply put, we cannot rely long-term on the federal government to fund the majority of research going forward.
In the US, the percentage of federal funding received for research used to be 70+% , but it has dropped to well below 60% now – and is still dropping. To ensure a pipeline of future innovations, we need to identify new or expanded sources of research funding. So institutions that engage industry well will be the best equipped to weather this challenge and position themselves for success to support the next generation of ground-breaking research.
Another major change is already underway – and that is preparing 21st century tech transfer professionals who now require the proficiency to cultivate entrepreneurship on their campus and create, nurture and grow new ventures. It’s no longer a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have. They must also have the ability to de-risking early stage inventions in this arsenal to advance most innovations outside the lab – if you do not have prototyping or proof-of-concept funding, you are at a severe disadvantage.
As Emory’s Todd Sherer, a past AUTM President once said, “Technology Transfer is a ‘War and Peace’ Profession in a Bumper Sticker World” – and that is one of the biggest challenges in creating a supportive institutional, corporate and governmental environment. So, how do we succinctly communicate the extraordinary benefit of technology transfer? How do we measure and share our impact in a meaningful way? If we don’t, you can be assured that technology transfer will be measured by vanity metrics – like invention disclosures or royalty income - that don’t illustrate the rich impact of technology transfer on society.
All the research funding and bright minds in the world can’t alone create change unless connected with the other crucial components of a successful innovation ecosystem. It is my goal for this organization that once and for all we shed the misperception that we are solely a university association and continue to grow and engage entrepreneurs, investors, and industry partners. This association belongs to all of us.
All of these things, combined, lead to the big, audacious goal: We have an unprecedented opportunity to guide the nation’s strategy on how to best commercialize early stage federal funded inventions - by those that have done it for decades with tremendous success. This national strategy must include:
- Commitments to both exploratory and translational research funding;
- Education and training of both inventors and technology transfer professionals alike;
- Strengthening of the intellectual property system;
- Enhancement of corporate engagement programs;
- New venture cultivation and support;
- Shared responsibility for protecting Bayh-Dole –and, for the first time ever,
- Nationally-focused multi-institutional initiatives
While the US may have been the originator of the Bayh-Dole university-owned IP strategy, countries around the world have developed similar comprehensive national strategies. We need to take a page from them and lead the charge domestically. Because grit, spit and tape won’t do it anymore in the face of dwindling federal research dollars. It’s up to us. All of us. Here and abroad, to advance early stage inventions. AUTM is going to lead the charge. With you. And in 40 years, we’ll see. While I’m betting the technology that guides us will be different. A lot different. Our mission and vision to positively impact the world, one innovation at a time, will stay true.