Set University Innovation Free

Set University Innovation FreeInnovation is Like Love, aptly described by those old posters I used to see at my dentist’s office, “if you love something, set it free, and if it comes back to you, it’s yours…”  Same thing for innovative university technologies, novel methods and creative people.  Here’s a poster that should hang in campus hallways:  “If you want innovation to take place, set it free, and if it comes back to you – well – it’s not precisely yours, but at least you’ve succeeded in introducing genuine value to the rest of the world….”

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that innovative university research is not set free.  Currently, university technology commercialization strategies rest on the assumption that university research is most commercially appealing when managed as potentially lucrative, university-owned intellectual property.  The current approach to commercializing university inventions is due for an overhaul.  Yet, universities and federal agencies continue to invest money and resources in initiatives and programs that merely re-hash the technology commercialization model we already have, one built on the assumption that more, not less, central control over university research is needed to increase its commercial  uptake.

Celebrating the status quo

If you scan Google news, you’ll see what I mean.  Headline after headline announce university initiatives to build a bigger infrastructure to “protect” and organize university inventions.  Universities announce they will hire more staff to better manage the university’s invention portfolio; universities will apply for more patents, offer more entrepreneurship education programs and run various flavors of business plan or best practice competitions.  University press releases announce, “A big patent licensing deal was signed!  Seventeen university startups were spun off!  Amazing new Director was hired who’s gonna turn the ship around!”   I know because I used to write those sorts of homages before I learned to apply my powers to tell the unsanctioned story of the Dark Side of university innovation… (that’s a joke)

Celebrating the status quo, however, is just a symptom, not the *real* problem.  The real problem is that innovation does not happen from central planning.  Innovation happens when you give intelligent, capable people the tools, resources and storefronts they need.  Next, set down some a few minimal ground rules to ensure decency and fair play, and then get the heck out of people’s way (unless they voluntarily come back to ask you to remove a barrier that they can’t remove alone).

Now don’t get me wrong.  I applaud that those in charge of university research and funding understand that change is needed.  It’s a good thing that the people who steward our nation’s tax-payer funded university research are struggling to stretch their thinking.  There’s no quick and easy solution; change is hard and its effects take years to register.  Also, I’ve met plenty of thoughtful, business-savvy intelligent university administrators (who, by the way, are a more diverse-minded bunch than they are permitted to publicly express) who deeply care about their university’s contribution to our nation’s economy and are struggling to figure out how they can help.

The Cathedral and the Baazar

Let me frame the situation another way:  in the metaphorical context of the cathedral and the bazaar.  Before I go into detail, let me explain what this metaphor means.  The notion of the cathedral and bazaar refers to two different approaches to technology development.  It was articulated by open source visionary Eric Raymond in the late 1990s to describe two ways to build software:  a cathedral mode, a traditional centralized, top-down commercial model in which a lead engineer presides over a tightly controlled group of paid software developers.  In cathedral building mode, software code is proprietary and its use is typically permitted in exchange for payment.

In contrast, the bazaar mode symbolizes the open source development paradigm.  The bazaar mode of software development is a de-centralized effort driven not by a single company, but by a typically unpaid leader who originated the project.  In the bazaar model, a loose federation of volunteer software developers write the code and the documentation, both of which are shared freely under an open source license.   Community recognition is the reward.  Project planning takes place via a process of transparent decision-making from the lead developer, frequently accompanied by heated debate.  No single entity owns the project code.  Companies are free to utilize portions they need (although different sorts of open source licenses permit different degrees of commercial application).

Raymond conceived of the cathedral and the bazaar in the context of software development.  But the notion aptly describes the tension between the formal and informal formal mechanisms that bring university research to market.  Here’s how the metaphor can be applied to university research.  Imagine a cathedral surrounded by a vast, bustling bazaar.  In this scenario, the hypothetical cathedral represents the formal technology commercialization programs and policies celebrated in press releases — the way decision-makers *want* university research to be doled out to the rest of the world.   In contrast, the hypothetical bazaar represents how university research is actually conducted and shared.

The cathedral mode of formal university technology commercialization consists of licensing patents in exchange for revenue, mandatory compulsory university ownership of anything invented on campus, and ever-lengthening intellectual property policies.   So what does the bazaar mode look like?   Actually, the bazaar mode is alive and well.  More than just alive and well.  The bazaar model of university technology commercialization is large and in charge.  The vast majority of university knowledge, in the past and today, flows to the rest of the world via the channels of open science:  scientific publications, conferences, or open source software.  Or via people:  graduating students, interpersonal relationships between researchers and faculty consulting engagements.

The cathedral mode is actually a relatively recent method of extracting the commercial value of university research.  Before the 1990s, few universities owned patent portfolios.  Campus intellectual property policies and commercialization planning committees were either non-existent or not of broad concern.  There were few technology transfer offices, no startup boot camps, business plan competitions or degree programs in entrepreneurship.  Yet university knowledge found its way over to the marketplace just the same.

Disorganized as it may be, the bazaar mode is better aligned to meet the needs of an increasingly bazaar-oriented commercial world.  When asked about the value of various channels of academic knowledge to their company’s R&D efforts, industry researchers ranked university patents well below scientific publications, relationships between research experts and conferences (“Links and impacts:  the influence of  public research on industrial R&D,” Cohen, Link and Walsh, 2002).   The bazaar mode adapts faster to changes in the industrial climate and new research directions.

The bazaar approach to technology development works.  Even in complex environments.  Similar to the open source software bazaar, scientific discoveries rarely spring from a single individual.  Creating innovative technologies is a haphazard process that relies on serendipity and the free flow of information rather than a centrally laid-out research agenda.   As described by Eric Raymond, the bazaar mode, by letting go of centralized control and rigid procedures unleashes the power of multiple ”agents attempting to maximize utility, which … produces a self-correcting spontaneous order more elaborate and efficient than any amount of central planning could have achieved.”

There’s no single path to technology commercialization

The cathedral mode of technology commercialization, however, should still have a place on campus, but as one of several options   Whether you like them or not, patents still play a central role in industry product development strategy.  As a result, many companies and startups, particularly those in the pharmaceutical, chemical and medical device industries, prefer to license patents when they work with university researchers.  And given how costly it is for universities to build their patent portfolios, some central oversight of where patents get licensed is necessary.  For example, if a would-be entrepreneur insists that his startup will only survive if he is issued an exclusive patent license, some screening of this individual’s plans by university licensing staff needs to take place.

In addition, painful and unpopular as they may be, many sweeping campus intellectual property policies originated with good intentions.  Although it’s an administrative failure that the tendency is to keep adding, not pruning university policy, some centralized guidelines are needed.  After all, most campus policies don’t come out of thin air but were triggered at some point by the misbehavior of one or two bad applies somewhere in the research food chain.  Finally, even inventors who happily freely share large portions of their work, in some instances, may prefer to develop some innovations in a proprietary manner.

In an ideal world, the cathedral and the bazaar would happily co-exist on campus.  After all, the commercial software world has learned to accept, even embrace the open source bazaar.  I’m not sure, however, that universities are adapting as well as have commercial software companies.  It’s a troubling trend that efforts to address to the problems of the formal university technology commercialization process attempt to expand, rather than moderate, or even shrink, centralized control.   Blind acceptance of the value of the cathedral mode and the strategies and policies that come with it threaten to choke the free, informal and un-choreographed knowledge flow that fuels the bazaar.

So what should be done?  Here’s a thought.  Wouldn’t it be great if the next technology commercialization competition were to be The Bazaar Cup?  The winner of the Bazaar Cup would be the university that did the *most* dismantling and the *least* architecting of its formal technology commercialization practices, programs and policies.   Entrants to the Bazaar Cup would submit a five-page document describing university strategy and policy “before” and “after.”  Extra points to the university that offers detailed, quantifiable descriptions of what practices, exactly, were relieved of central oversight.  Entries would be submitted online for anyone to read.   Judging would consist of an open ballot with the condition that each judge make her vote public (to minimize political shenanigans).  I’ll bet that the online debate from Cup judges and spectators would kick up a whole lot of valuable best practices for policymakers to pore over.
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Melba KurmanMelba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.

Melba Kurman




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No Comments

  1. Moises Norena on October 9, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    I love Melba’s metaphor and I have seen it happen, it is so true. In corporations, when you take an embedment approach to innovation, at some point you have to let it go…but it does come back to you, because when people get “infected with the germ”, they get curious and start searching for more, this ultimately comes to back at you…

  2. Phil Clare on October 10, 2011 at 4:25 am

    Although I have some sympathy for this approach, I have some reservations too. Firstly, Universities are bazaars anyway. The vast majority of the knowledge they generate is absolutely free to anyone who cares to read about it. Tech transfer is a method for getting more knowledge out there, for those cases where industry won’t take it without the IP packaging, or don’t see any value in it.

    To change the metaphor slightly, open innovation is a bit like free love, idealists see it as a paradigm shift that will change the world and cynics see it as a convenient label to get what they are after. Nobody argues that open innovation isn’t a good thing, the real challenge is to make sure everyone gets value for their contribution in this more fluid world. There are those who are happy to see that everyone gets something (including companies, universities and inventors) and those who are more focused on “winning the deal”. In every walk of life.

    After all you still have to pay for things in a bazaar…

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