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Category: General Ramblings (Page 1 of 13)

University Technology Transfer & Start-Ups

Research universities are becoming increasingly essential for economic success. The research performed by universities creates new knowledge and serves as a basis for innovation that benefits industry. Indeed, many industries have relied on university research for commercial purposes. There has been a rise of commercialization of academic research in recent decades, particularly in the United States, as new technologies and innovation transfer from universities into the private sector. This technology transfer takes many forms: trained graduates who get private employment; personal interactions between industry and academia; or publication of research results. However, an important method of technology transfer is the entrepreneurial activity of university faculty and the licensing of university-produced intellectual property to established firms or new start-up companies.

Historically, there were high barriers to technology transfer from universities, especially with licensing intellectual property. Federal funding of university research entailed the government retaining title to inventions made with those funds, regardless of who performed the research. Licenses issued to that research were primarily non-exclusive. This made it challenging to offer innovations and technologies to the private sector so that they could be commercially profitable. Then, in 1980, the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act – often referred to as the Bayh-Dole Act – set a legal framework for university technology commercialization and created a stable environment that allowed intellectual property rights to be retained from federally funded research. The Act allows inventors from universities or other nonprofit institutions to retain intellectual property ownership from federally sponsored research and development. Because of the Act, patenting at universities increased dramatically, and many universities have set up methods, such as technology transfer offices, to transfer their patents into the private sector.

Technology transfer offices (TTO) promote the utilization of inventions from university research. In the United States, they allow universities and researchers to capitalize on the intellectual property rights they gained through the Bayh-Dole Act, while attempting to resolve concerns regarding conflicts of interests. They identify research that has potential commercial interest, assist with work related to marketability and funding sources, provide legal and commercialization support to researchers, and serve as a liaison interested in commercializing university-developed technologies Many universities have channeled their innovation activities through a central TTO. By selling, licensing, or patenting technologies or research, universities may recover the investments of its project or support future research while making that property available to society.

TTO’s, however, are not without their criticisms. While some TTO’s are effective at spreading innovations into the marketplace, others have been criticized as impeded technology transfer by adding extra layers of administration and bureaucracy. For example, research has shown that some university administrators would rather use TTO’s as generators of university revenue instead of focusing on transferring technologies, neglecting some innovations that have little profit potential in the commercial marketplace. Academic red tape with some TTO’s tie up university faculty with patent-related paperwork and which detracts from the main research mission. TTO’s personnel sometimes have little knowledge of research results, innovation, and the marketplace for an invention. Finally, intellectual property management and technology transfer revenue distribution policies can be confusing and rigid.

Moreover, there are questions of TTO’s impact on the university’s core academic mission. Some argue that a focus on patenting innovations – for purposes of commercialization and profit – impedes the free flow of information from university research. Researchers may delay publications of their findings before they patent technologies that could stem from them, thereby risking impeding innovation. A focus on research into commercial-ready technologies could lead university researchers to focus on applied research, rather than the basic research which is often the purview of universities and fundamental to broader innovation across sectors. This diversion of research priorities risks the critical scientific exploration that leads to new discoveries and knowledge. However, many scholars find that there is little evidence that suggests this shift is occurring; likewise, some have found that commercial activity increases research efforts and publication outputs. This is to suggest that entrepreneurial activity at universities do not hamper scientific performance.

There are also issues of conflict of interest and incentives for university faculty to engage in technology-related research and transfer. Researchers may be sponsored by industry for their work on a specific technology or scientific inquiry, which can lead to ethical issues related to their results, methodology, or priorities. Meanwhile, while there are several reasons why scientists, with proper incentives, would be more likely to coordinate with industry to disclose and transfer inventions, scholars have found that incentives do not motivate university faculty to engage in entrepreneurial activities. Indeed, some have found a negative correlation between monetary incentives given to scientists whose inventions were licensed and the number of start-up companies that use that licensed technology. Some argue that universities have thus struggled to find an incentive structure that prompts faculty to commercialize research and foster an entrepreneurial culture within the university.

At any rate, TTO’s have blossomed in the United States. At the time the Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980, there were 25 technology transfer offices at United States universities. By 2005, there were over 3300. Success with TTO’s widely varies, with a wide disparity among universities of revenue, invention disclosure, patenting rates, and licensing across universities. In 2012, 8 universities – the top 5% of universities earning revenue on university-produced research – took 50% of the total licensing income of the American university system. This is manifest from differences in the organization structure of TTO’s, such as staffing levels, funding sources, procedures for sharing royalties between the inventor, school, and department, and relationships with the faculty. Moreover, disparities reflect differences in university factors such as the scale and specialization of their research portfolios, historical reputation, geographic proximity to potential investors and industry partners, and their public vs. private status.

TTO’s, along with the growth of university-based innovation through research and development, has lead to a boom in the establishment of start-up companies. TTO’s are placing emphasis on creating new start-up companies as the optimal path of commercialization. To achieve that aim, some universities have created incubators and science parks where start-ups can share space and services, and where there is closer proximity and collaboration between the entrepreneur and the researcher. Others have launched university venture firms to invest in start-up companies that are commercializing university-produced and licensed technologies. This may be a measured success; indeed, research has found that the number of start-up firms commercializing university research grew from 241 in 1994 to 555 in 2007. However, other research has indicated that there is marginal, if no, causation between university incubators, university venture capital investments, and the rate by which new firms are launched.

However, entrepreneurial universities do ingrain a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism that translates from academia into the private sector. Researchers, academics, and students who participate in basic and applied research at a university and secure a license for a certain technology developed through the course of their work can then start-up their own company and try to commercialize it. To that end, universities that engage in technology development do have a “spin-off” effect in that the individuals who participate in it then propagate out into the private and entrepreneurial sector.

American research universities have been generally successful in creating new innovations and inventions for high-tech industries, and the economy would suffer if it was without an entrepreneurial role for universities. The transfer of new technologies plays an important role in the creation of new products and industries. Universities have stimulated this transfer through the establishment of technology transfer offices and assistance to start-up firms that seek to commercialize that technology. This is not without criticisms, of course, nor has it shown itself to be as effective as commonly assumed. However, the role of the university as an innovation generator has only recently begun and is constantly evolving; future models may see universities reorganize their education and research and reconsider how to best disseminate knowledge and technologies into the economy.

“Combatant Commands” & U.S. Defense Policy

As a key organizational and operational construct within the highest levels of the United States’ military, combatant commands – along with their commanders – play significant roles in U.S. defense policy. These commands, organized either on a geographical or functional basis, provide effective command and control of military forces, regardless of branch of service, in peace and war. By their nature, they offer U.S. defense policy and application of military force several benefits, but likewise face several challenges.

The combatant command structure emerged out of an evolution, prompted by historical circumstances, in the military’s approach to force unity and command and control. Prior to the Second World War, the services operated independently. Coordination between branches of the armed forces was frequently marred by bureaucratic distrust and service rivalry. The experience of the Second World War, particularly in the Pacific theater, demonstrated the operational pitfalls of this arrangement; differences between the Army and Navy precluded any sort of consistent unified command. While commanders were able to work together to defeat Japan, it wasn’t without considerable fiction and infighting as commanders within the independent, powerful commands competed for the same resources and the attention of senior leadership.

Given the dynamics of the post-war geopolitical environment, a global military presence was viewed as a guarantee against Communist expansion. Achieving such presence necessitated an effective, geographically-focused, long-term, joint-command arrangement. Between this and the lessons learned from the Second World War, legislation over the course of three decades established geographic unified commands, clarified lines of command for unified commanders, and, per the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, permanently assigned forces to unified combatant commands.

The premise and purpose of Combatant Commands remains essentially the same today. Combatant commanders integrate and utilize air, land, sea, and amphibious forces within the geographic or functional area of their control to achieve U.S. national security objectives. They are responsible for accomplishing missions assigned to their region, designating objectives, assigning tasks, and giving authoritative direction over all aspects of military operations as well as all aspects of joint-training and logistics. Likewise, they are responsible for establishing command relationships with subordinate commands and for organizing subordinate units as deemed necessary. They take direction from the Commander in Chief – the President – and are responsible to the Secretary of Defense.

Combatant commands offer several benefits. First, and perhaps most importantly, they provide unified and integrated command and control of cross-service forces in a theater. This is critical for the United States’ current military doctrines, which emphasis use of joint-service application of force. By minimizing confusion, competition, and conflict between the services in operations, the military can more effectively conduct its primary mission of keeping America secure and waging conflict. For functional combatant commands, integrating all elements of a particular warfighting domain – such as cyber, space, and strategic forces – under a single chain of command allows for easier oversight, coordination, and rapidity of action.

Second, as regional combatant commanders wield considerable influence over American foreign policy in their area of responsibility and have the resources and authority to act quickly, they can be disproportionately effective, compared to other American foreign policy actors, in shaping dialogue and events in theater so as to advance American security and foreign policy interests. Likewise, their relationships and integration with regional counterparts through military engagement programs provides them policy leverage that other elements of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus may not possess. Frequently, the power to “get something done” may lie with a foreign military rather than in a foreign ministry. As such, the United States’ government has increasingly deferred to and provided resources for combatant commanders to achieve regional objectives, regardless of whether those objectives are distinctly military in nature or not.

Combatant commands also come with challenges both inherent to their structure and manifest from their historical and contemporary execution. First is manifest from the policy influence that combatant commanders have. Commentators have suggested that combatant commanders have overstepped their bounds in executing American foreign policy. The resources of the DoD and combatant commands may provide a quick response to a foreign issue, but not necessarily the correct or most effective response. Once combatant commands are engaged in a foreign policy effort, they tend to continue, as it is difficult and time consuming to transfer responsibilities to civil organizations. Because of this, civilian agencies that are, by law and by tradition, supposed to manage U.S. foreign relations have tended to be relegated to an increasingly secondary role – and have faced budgetary pressures reflecting that. Similarly, the influence of combatant commanders and their role in executing U.S. foreign policy raises questions about the civilian oversight and control.

This issue ultimately comes down to a key point bout handling the issues of today’s world. Military engagement programs with other countries can be seen only as part of the overall engagement activity of the U. S. government. Modern security challenges such as terrorism, narcotics, smuggling, and international criminal networks can no longer be managed as single agency programs but must be integrated into “whole of government” programs. That combatant commands and their commanders have widened, not closed, the gap between the foreign policy agencies involved in a “whole of government” approach is a distinct challenge and concern.

Next, the geographically organized and regionally focused combatant command structure does not readily accommodate solutions to post-Cold War era challenges such as the emergence of transnational groups and regional powers, which operate outside traditional borders and in nontraditional domains. Strict geographic regionalism is no longer how the world operates. From this stems issues of and disagreement over responsibility over problems that extend across areas of command. Coordination on handling these new and emerging challenges will be increasingly difficult if the rigidity of the combatant command structure is maintained. Meanwhile, the lead for two major security concerns of priority today – international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – falls squarely on the shoulders of two functional combatant commands – Special Operations command and Strategic Command, respectively. The geographic combatant commands are, by their nature, not designated as the lead organizations for managing two of the United States’ primary military challenges.

Considering these challenges, experts both within and outside the Department of Defense have offered several suggestions for reform of the combatant command structure – or fundamental change to the way the United States organizes command and control. Nonetheless, in the present day, combatant commands play a vital role within the United States’ military and defense policy, and their commanders are actors of considerable influence for American foreign policy. The combatant command structure has brought the United States considerable military advantage throughout the past decades – even if it comes with drawbacks and faces increasingly difficult questions and issues.

On “Strategy”

For leaders and decision-makers grappling with a diversity of complex, occasionally competing, national interests, as well as with challenges in every region of the world, the ability to hierarchize interest and threat vis-à-vis national goals enables them to effectively allocate attention and resources to priorities. Ideally, this is achieved through crafting and implementing “strategy.” While the process of formulating and employing strategy is rife with challenges and shortcomings, it is nonetheless one of significant meaning and importance for U.S. foreign and defense policy. In lack of a strategy – a firm grasp, prioritization, and articulation of national interests – there is a danger that policy will wander according to the crisis or fashion of the moment and that policymakers will be exposed to distraction, confusion, and be led to overreach.

A “good” strategy is a method, not an endpoint. It is a process of defining political ends, of identifying critical approaches for achieving those ends, and of problem-solving in circumstances where much lies outside decision-makers’ ability to control. Good strategy reduces uncertainty in times of ambiguity and clarifies which options for action and reaction are in line with national priorities, preparing leaders to act in integrated ways even when surprised. Likewise, in an international environment saturated with potential challenges, threats, and opportunities, a strategy delivers guidance on which should be deemed and treated as critical for national attention and which should not.

Beyond providing a methodology for thinking about and acting upon decisions, crafting strategy offers functional benefits for the organizations that engage in it. First, a strategy helps bridge the gap between the government’s resources and policy ambitions. Limitless policy and programmatic opportunities are bounded by real constraints in funding and manpower. Through the act of declaring top priorities and goals, policymakers can identify the programs that support them most closely, which warrant a greater share of the limited available budget, and appropriate accordingly. Next, the process itself of developing a strategy helps focus policymakers and bureaucracies. As with any thought-exercise, it provides policymakers an opportunity to consider more closely national needs, goals, and options to pursue them. It allows them to hone in on an integrated way of thinking and doing amidst the confusion of constantly changing events.  Articulating priorities provides guidance to implementers throughout the bureaucracy for devising executable steps toward achieving them.

Finally, strategy serves an important messaging function that conveys the intent of defense policy to audiences both domestic and international. In the domestic sphere, it informs the public and Congress of the Department of Defenses’ interests, concerns, and policy priorities. Deciding whether to abide by a strategy through authorizations and appropriations that align with its tenets is ultimately the prerogative of Congress; nonetheless, it is valuable for members and their staff to understand how the Department of Defense intends to approach issues – how it “thinks” – when developing policy. Internationally, it communicates to friends and foes alike how the United States sees global developments and how it will act to shape them and in response. This offers allies an opportunity to align their own strategies to support and supplement the United States, and serves as a form of warning or deterrent to potential adversaries.

The strategies that most effectively achieve these aims consist of certain key elements. First, and perhaps most important, a good strategy is realistic. One that fails to consider, or misconstrues, the real limits of national means and power defeats the purpose of providing decision-makers guidance on how best to employ available resources to advance the national interest. A realistic strategy acknowledges constraints; indeed, in doing so, it prepares decision-makers for making choices that account for these constraints and work around them. Similarly, good strategies are limited in objective and scope. A broad strategy makes it difficult for policymakers to prioritize top objectives, especially given the limited means available to execute, and runs the risk of leading to overextension and decisions that conflict with each other. With a broad strategy, hierarchies of interests and threats tend to become blurred or collapse altogether.  Instead of cataloguing every interest, strategy should consist of decision rules that allow for application to events as they unfold.

Good strategies are clear in direction, to allow for their consistent implementation through all levels of the bureaucracy and across multiple decisionmakers. Strategies that are unclear or ambiguous in tenet and direction lead to different interpretations among various levels of the bureaucracy, which can muddle execution and lead to non-integrated action. Finally, a good strategy is one that is conceptualized and crafted through an inclusive process that involves all stakeholders. Not only does this secure needed buy-in from the wide array of actors responsible for implementing the strategy, but it allows for a diversity of perspectives to be offered, taken into consideration, and included.

The process of crafting and implementing defense strategy is a challenging one. With multiple constituencies seeking to involve their particular interests or “pet projects” in a strategic framework, the strategy that emerges risks being burdened by excessive and specific detail. Detail can be constraining – a good strategy is limited in scope and breadth – as it minimizes the space for recalibration and adaptation to changing circumstances. The discipline to minimize detail in a strategy is not always forthcoming. Meanwhile, competition regarding priorities, programs, and approaches to be included in a strategy tends to emerge between career bureaucrats and political appointees.  By virtue of their different positions and prerogatives, both have different – often-contradictory – perspectives on the best course of action to take. Political appointees seek to advance the agenda of the Administration and correspondingly approach strategy with a short-term, politicized focus. Particularly within the Department of Defense, career bureaucrats with long institutional histories and knowledge tend to seek preservation of the status-quo and to protect or give priority to their own institutional interests. Striking a balance between these perspectives can be a difficult task, necessitating significant compromise and limiting the extent to which an Administration can pursue its defense policy aims and objectives.

A further challenge in executing strategy is linking the long-term goals set by planners and “strategists” with the short- and mid-term actions that operators can reasonably take to deal with a crisis of the moment. Imperatives do not always align on the short- and long-term perfectly, and planners and operators have different institutional incentives to address tensions. Even with good strategies that are clear in direction and guidance, implementation will suffer because of differing pressures and competencies throughout all levels of the bureaucracy. Finally, a continuing, indeed, inherent, challenge with crafting and implementing strategy is simply that of its nature. How does one know that a strategy is good? How can one be sure that a strategy is working? These are questions without clear answers – decision-makers can work only with their best assumptions and predictions about the world and alter those assumptions as needed. Strategies need to both offer a framework for dealing with security challenges and world events but also simultaneously allow for flexibility and adaptability to new situations.

Despite these challenges, the act of developing, articulating, and implementing strategy is and will remain an invaluable tool for the Department of Defense and American defense policy. An integrated way of thinking about and handling the world’s challenges, even if flawed, is always superior for advancing national interest than haphazardly stumbling into the crises of vogue.

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