Public sector research - key actors - technology transfer offices



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What are technology transfer offices (TTOs)?

Technology transfer or technology licensing offices are those organizations or parts of an organization which help the staff at research universities and public research institutes (PRIs) to identify and manage the organization’s intellectual assets, including protecting intellectual property and transferring or licensing rights to other parties to enhance prospects for further development. A university or PRI may have a single centralized TTO, it may have several TTOs associated with it (e.g. for different schools or departments), or it may outsource to an external TTO which has several client organizations.


What are the main activities of TTOs and how do they foster innovation?

TTOs tasks usually include but are not limited to

  • inventorying invention disclosures,
  • deciding on patents and handling the patenting procedure,
  • looking for potential licensing and
  • conducting the negotiations with them.


Several empirical studies (e.g. Siegel et al., 2007) appear to indicate that the key determinant of increasing enforcement of intellectual property ownership by universities has been the creation of a formal technology transfer/licensing office. In this way, TTOs can serve universities receive rewards for their innovations and, in this way, foster future innovation projects. Moreover, TTOs role of facilitating technology transfer supports the commercial exploitation of knowledge and the market introduction of innovations. A specific way TTOs might do so is via facilitating the creation of spin-offs.


What activities and outcomes of public sector research can technology transfer offices support?

TTOs play a role for many activities of public sector research including notably the following:

  • Knowledge markets are various types of arrangements which govern the transfer of intellectual property rights, most often patents in the context of innovation. TTOs are a specific type of mechanism and their performance will depend on how they operate with others.
  • They can play an important role for technological developments in enabling the commercial utilisation of technology and specifically permitting spin-offs. They are possibly essential institutions to the creation of spin-offs since legal constraints to using scientific discoveries can be a major obstacle.


What resources and capabilities do technology transfer offices need to perform their activities?

TTOs need to have good knowledge both of public research institutions and of the technology market to contribute meaningfully. This requires specifically the need for highly skilled staff bringing in business, legal and scientific expertise. Limited resources for TTOs can, therefore, seriously reduce any of the potential innovation-supporting impacts.


The effective use of knowledge markets (KM) by TTOs requires both a good knowledge of the inventions (hence a close contact with researchers) and the ability to operate in the open and competitive context of KM. Whereas the first quality requires local roots, the second requires a world-wide horizon. It also requires highly competent teams, hence numerous enough (critical mass) and compensated at (usually high) market rates. These various requirements are not straightforward to meet together and various solutions have been experimented across countries and over time.


What are the shaping factors affecting how technology transfer offices can support public sector research organisations and their innovation performance?

The capacities as well as the usefulness of TTOs in stimulating innovation will depend on a lot of shaping factors.

  • The state of economic development often determines the importance of TTOs since weak national markets mean there are weak commercial opportunities. Specifically a country’s economic specialisation will be relevant.
  • Their capacities are closely related to existing IPR regimes.
  • Roles and status of research universities and PRIs are also important. The setting-up of TTOs derives from the necessity to improve the effectiveness of university performance in order to better correspond to social demands, particularly through research results transfer and licensing of proprietary technologies and know how. It is important to point out that the success of technology transfer activities at universities and PRIs depends, fundamentally, on the way they are inserted in the organisational context. It is essential that top management perform a visible leadership role in the strategy and operation of the programmes of interaction with enterprises, in order to guarantee the necessary organisational resources for its execution.


What are the important policies to improve the role of technology transfer offices?

  • The capacities of TTOs can be improved by providing universities and PRIs with the incentives to create well-functioning and efficient TTOs. That relates to raising their incentives in commercialising some of the results of their research. Capacity-building might also benefit from international exchanges among experts on the question.
  • State funding has over the past several years increasingly helped fund the development of TTOs, created with the objective to stimulate and to facilitate their interrelation with the other two agents of the innovation systems, namely industries and government.
  • A variety of TTOs experiences can be identified in different parts of the world, from offices that are inserted in the university or PRI organizational structure itself to those that constitute independent organisations that put into practice a technology transfer process in the university’s name. Most TTOs tend to be fairly young and policy improvements would be relevant.
  • Non-IP related laws and regulations such as public sector pay scales that make it difficult for universities and PRIs to recruit qualified technology transfer personnel can be a barrier to capacity building in TTOs. Fiscal rules that prevent universities and PRIs from receiving and retaining royalty income from licences – such as those recently lifted in the United Kingdom and Korea – can also weaken incentives for technology transfer.



OECD (2003), Turning Scienc einto Business: Patenting and Licensing at Public Research Organisations.

Grimaldi et al. (2011), 30 Years After Bayh-Dole: Reassessing Academic Entrepreneurship, Research Policy, forthcoming.

Siegel et al (2007)

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