The Ivory Tower’s Secret Mission: Academic to Commercial Translation


Universities and national laboratories inarguably serve a vital function in society. They are most widely known for their educational mission and service to learning and research. However, these institutions are also creators of life-changing innovation. The journey from cutting-edge research to real-world impact, through a process termed academic to commercial translation, can be complex and harrowing.

shutterstock_1922200349-editHaving worked in this field for many years I have seen both successes and failed attempts to bring technologies out of the so called “Ivory Tower.” In part, this can be attributed to the specific expectations and protections researchers enjoy when within one of these institutions. In fact, the term “Ivory Tower” is used to designate an environment of intellectual pursuit disconnected from external, often practical concerns. In contrast, academic to commercial translation of technologies is driven by in-depth assessment and consideration of these concerns. This disconnect leads to a significant gap in the ability to move technology out of an academic setting without external support.

With this in mind, let us now explore the process of academic to commercial translation of technology, highlighting the steps involved and the importance of bridging the gap between academia and industry for fostering innovation.

The Importance of Commercializing University Research

There are myriad benefits to the commercialization of technology. These typically fit into one of three categories: 1. Economic Impact, 2. Societal Benefits, and 3. Knowledge Transfer. A discussion of how truly powerful advancing any one--let alone all three--of these categories can be, really drives home the importance of supporting this process.

Economic Impact: Commercializing university research drives economic growth by creating new industries, jobs, and revenue streams. Whole, multi-billion dollar industries have come through the commercialization process. For a few examples, consider sports drinks, lab generated meat, and genetic surgery (e.g. gene editing tools such as CRISPR). While these examples are a rarity when compared with the number of commercial transfers, there are many instances of a technology opening up a new revenue stream or treatment/action modality that did not previously exist. Lastly, and not to be discounted, there is the very important metric of job creation that is a direct and consistent result of these transfers.

Societal Benefits: The potential for university research to address pressing societal challenges, such as healthcare, sustainability, and technology advancement, is perhaps the most obvious benefit to academic to commercial translation of technology. This can range from reduced waste during the manufacturing process to life-saving medications and everything in between.

shutterstock_1505070212-editKnowledge Transfer: The role of commercialization in transferring knowledge and innovations from academic institutions to the marketplace results in broader dissemination and impact. There is indeed a compounding effect of knowledge transfer. We often refer to modern scientific pursuits as standing on the shoulder of giants. For example, a direct line can be drawn from 1984 when Apple launched the first personal computer to feature a graphics-based user interface, to present-day smartphones, tablets, and even online streaming platforms such as YouTube and countless independent websites.

From understanding rudimentary graphics to endlessly streaming from the comfort of a moving vehicle, the commercialization process of technology, described below, saw perhaps thousands of iterations.

The Commercialization Process: Steps and Strategies

In the early 1980s, Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole spearheaded one of the most important legislative advances to the intellectual property landscape. This was the humbly named Bayh-Dole Act, which gave institutions that received federal grant funding the rights to Intellectual Property (IP) that arose from that research. The protection that securing patents and copyrights for research findings and inventions allowed gave universities to support the mission of academic to commercial translation of technologies.

The following years saw universities open and expand offices dedicated to this new, ironically not public facing, mission. More than 40 years later, universities have the process well defined. A graphic developed by The University of Pittsburgh illustrates the general approach quite well. Technology transfer offices were the most prolific of these new offices and include talented and professional attorneys, entrepreneurs, researchers and administrators whom support academic to commercial translation of technology. Their role is to facilitate the commercialization process by managing intellectual property, licensing agreements, and industry partnerships.

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*Office of Industry and Economic Partnerships, University of Pittsburgh

As industrious as universities and research institutions are, they simply cannot succeed in academic to commercial translation in a vacuum. There are far too many moving parts and nuances outside of university control and bandwidth. As a result, industry collaboration is critical. In my VIC Fellows Spotlight last February, I briefly discussed the importance of ecosystems to commercialization. Innovation ecosystems work to advance research, fund projects, and access resources and expertise not otherwise at the disposal of the university. Moreover, for universities not located in large population centers, access to a “virtual ecosystem” is critical for commercialization success.

Finally, a word of caution: While it may seem to many within the Ivory Tower that the licensure of IP is the last step in a long road (and it is), it is at the same time the first step in an even longer and rougher road. There seems to be an ever-growing trend of university-based entrepreneurship and startup ecosystems, where researchers and students launch ventures to commercialize innovative ideas and technologies. It is the goal of innovators such as myself and my colleagues at VIC Technology Venture Development to make sure that technologies that make it this far are positioned well to complete this new journey.

Overcoming Challenges and Barriers

Escape from the Ivory Tower is never a guarantee of success, but the university must be sure not to place an undue burden on the company that may affect its ability to succeed. VIC Managing Director Michael Artinger discusses this in great detail in a prior blog post that is certainly worth reading.

shutterstock_2316798101-editThere are three primary pitfalls that arise post-licensure of a technology. They are 1. Funding Constraints: where limited resources and access to capital can slow or halt commercialization, 2. Regulatory Hurdles: regulatory and legal complexities can impede the commercialization process, and 3. Cultural Problems: as mentioned before, success requires involvement within an ecosystem and if not navigated properly a member of the ecosystem, may inhibit progress either purposefully or inadvertently. Venture studio firms, such as VIC, work diligently post- licensure to ensure that these pitfalls are avoided.

Final Thoughts

By bridging the gap between academia and industry, and fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, universities can maximize the impact of their research, driving economic growth and societal progress. In my view, this is a noble pursuit and one that my colleagues and I have dedicated our careers to. The scientific process is expensive, messy and fraught with challenges that result in mostly chaff. Thus, it is truly a shame when the winnowers grain is left adrift in the doldrums with no land in sight.

If you are interested in commercializing technology, I recommend you reach out to a venture studio for support. Specifically, if the technology is medical device, therapeutics or vaccine related, please look more into the VIC model and feel free to reach out to any of our team members for more information.