The University Record, March 1, 1993

IPO’s Robb: ‘Tech transfer will flourish here’

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

“Publish or perish” may be the rule at most American universities, but at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—an institution that supports close ties between academia and industry—the rule is “demo or die,” says John T. Preston, director of MIT’s Technology Development Office.

MIT faculty, students and alumni have founded 636 new private companies with worldwide revenues of $40 billion, according to Preston. In 1993, MIT expects to receive $16 million in royalty revenue from its equity holdings in new start-up companies.

Preston presented some reasons for MIT’s success during a Feb. 17 seminar in Chrysler Center Auditorium titled “World Class Technology Transfer: Building a Supportive Infrastructure.” Preston’s seminar, part of a continuing series on technology transfer issues, was sponsored by the Intellectual Properties Office (IPO) and the College of Engineering’s Technology Transfer Office.

One factor behind MIT’s success is a culture that encourages applied research directed at solving specific industry problems, Preston said. “Too much technology at American universities languishes on the basic research side of the development gap,” he said.

Preston emphasized that MIT has significant advantages not shared by other universities, including the U-M. These include access to a large pool of venture capital in the Massachusetts area, liberal financial incentives for faculty who create start-up technologies, an established technology transfer office that’s been in operation since 1932, and a proven record of success that attracts potential investors.

But can a public university in the Midwest ever hope to achieve the same level of technology transfer success as MIT?

“We have obstacles to overcome, but they are not insurmountable,” says Robert L. Robb, new IPO director. “Vast amounts of venture capital may not be at our doorstep, but there is a large pool of quality technology at the U-M, which provides a base for attracting capital.”

Robb agrees with Preston that technology transfer is a “long-term game,” and that neither inventors nor the University should expect quick financial returns.

“Creating an academic environment with the individual incentives and entrepreneurial spirit that generate new licensing agreements and spin-off companies takes years of cumulative effort,” Robb says. “It will require an aggressive and proactive approach on the part of U-M faculty and administrators, as well as business leaders outside the university.”

Robb says he is optimistic because of the cooperation and support he’s received from all key participants in the U-M technology transfer process.

“Technology commercialization is a worthy and necessary endeavor,” Robb says. “Based on my experience so far at the U-M, I believe tech transfer will flourish here, because it will receive the attention it deserves. As President [James J.] Duderstadt indicated, Ann Arbor may indeed be an economic engine for growth in Michigan.”