Public Policy Forum Blog

Maxmizing the local economic benefits of academic research

This afternoon the Public Policy Forum takes up the topic of the economic impact of academic research at our Viewpoint luncheon. One specific way in which research leads to job creation and business development is via technology transfer – the legal process in which new discoveries are patented, marketed, and licensed to commercial manufacturers. Southeast Wisconsin is home to several academic research institutions, each of which goes about technology transfer independently, for the most part. A new Forum report to be presented at the luncheon today examines whether greater collaboration among the region’s research institutions is needed to maximize the local economic impacts of technology transfer.

Our analysis finds that there are three models that might be considered by academic leaders to enhance collaboration in technology transfer and potentially augment the effectiveness of existing efforts:

  • Joint Office of Technology Transfer
    A joint office of technology transfer could potentially result in greater expertise in economic development practice for the participating institutions, as well as economies of scale. However, a joint office may stretch the resources of technology transfer officers to the point that some institutions may experience reduced levels of service. Equitably funding a joint office to serve public and private institutions also would be challenging.
  • Joint Infrastructure for Informal Technology Transfer Activities
    Currently, much of the technology transfer work performed by academic institutions is of the informal variety - building awareness of academic research projects by industrial researchers and investors through networking and partnering. At the federal level, this work is performed by a permanent consortium of the federal research labs. A similar consortium of local institutions could be created and charged with raising the profile of translational research for local industry. Each participating institution would have to trust, however, that its financial contributions to the consortium would eventually result in benefits for its researchers.
  • Joint Economic Development Entity
    We found four different types of collaborative economic development agency models aimed at increasing the local economic impact of academic research. All are aimed at encouraging and supporting the transfer of technology to local industry and start-ups, but each does so a little differently. The biggest hurdle for this model is sustainability - a previous, state-funded, southeast Wisconsin economic development effort, TechStar, proved unsustainable.

In addition to considering the creation of a new full-fledged collaborative infrastructure based on one of the three models above, the region's research institutions could consider collaborating on more targeted strategies to ensure that their research positively impacts the local economy:

  1. Expand the UWM-MCW First Look Forum to other research institutions—Offer more researchers the opportunity to participate in these events designed to connect academic researchers to investors and industry.
  2. Jointly offer start-up support or an entrepreneur-in-residence program—Collaborate to ensure local researchers have the opportunity to be educated about commercializing technology through company formation, mentored through the technology development and venture formation process, and connected with outside resources that can provide services, advice, funding, and management expertise.
  3. Jointly raise funds for pre-seed grants—Expand the UWM Catalyst Grant program to other research institutions by working together to raise additional funds from foundations and industry.
  4. Utilize a joint tech transfer advisory committee—Maximize local resources by forming a joint advisory committee of investors and industry leaders to advise on patenting decisions, particularly those arising from research projects conducted collaboratively by two or more CTSI institutions.
  5. Create a local industry database—Provide researchers at all local institutions with data about industry needs and interests, as well as contacts, by jointly creating and managing a local industry database.
  6. Host clinician informant panels—Increase awareness among researchers who are not also clinicians by jointly hosting opportunities for discussion of clinical problems in need of solutions.

It is clear that the region’s academic research institutions have yet to capture the full economic development potential of their research. By collaborating more closely to identify local discoveries that fill gaps in the global market, and by working together to help create or grow local players in that market, academic leaders could take better advantage of their rapidly emerging research prowess.

Anneliese Dickman