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Technology Transfer

Technology is information or knowledge that is put to use in order to accomplish a particular task. Technology transfer is the application of information into use.

American research universities have become increasingly involved in various technology-transfer activities by establishing technology/business incubators, technology parks, venture capital funds for start-up companies, university research foundations, and technology licensing offices. This trend toward what Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie (1997) call academic capitalism is also illustrated by an increase in the number of university-based research centers–and by the tendency for some universities to retain partial ownership in the start-up companies that spin out of university research.

Through this variety of boundary-spanning activities, research universities seek to facilitate the transfer of technological innovations to private companies in order to: (1) create jobs and contribute to local economic development, and (2) earn additional funding for university research. Technology transfer from research universities has been increasingly recognized as an engine for economic growth in the United States. This relatively new role for research universities has been greeted with considerable discussion and debate. One question that has been raised concerns what role American research universities can, and should, play in transferring research results to private companies in the form of licensed technologies.

A research university is an institution whose main purposes are to conduct research and to train graduate students in how to conduct research. The first research universities developed in Germany; the University of Göttingen (founded in 1737) and the University of Berlin (established in 1810) were among the earliest examples. The idea of the research university spread to the United States, first to Johns Hopkins University (in 1876) and Clark University (in 1890), and then to Stanford University (1891) and the University of Chicago (1892). In the early twenty-first century, several hundred U.S. universities consider themselves research universities.

While some U.S. research universities established an office of technology licensing as early as 1925 (the University of Wisconsin at Madison), 1935 (Iowa State University), and 1940 (Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]), most research universities did not adopt this idea until after 1970. Wisconsin, and later Stanford, served as the models for many other research universities as they became increasingly involved in technology transfer. The Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act of 1980, commonly known as the Bayh-Dole Act and amended by Public Law 98-620 in 1984, facilitated patenting and licensing on a broad scale by research universities. This legislation shifted the responsibility for the transfer of technologies stemming from federally funded research from the federal government to the research universities that conducted the research.

Since the early 1980s the rise of biotechnology research and development and, more generally, of research in the life sciences has also boosted the number of research universities with offices of technology licensing–and increased the incomes earned by these offices. Today, some 70 percent of all technology royalties earned by universities come from the life sciences, with the remainder mainly derived from the physical sciences, including engineering. David Mowery et al. (1999) found that most invention disclosures, patents, and licensing at Columbia University were concentrated in a very small number of departments, including electrical engineering, computer science, and the medical school.

The spread of university offices of technology licensing followed the S-shaped curve that is characteristic of the cumulative rate of adoption of an innovation, with larger, more research-oriented universities tending to adopt first, followed over ensuing years by universities with a smaller amount of external research funding that devote fewer resources to research and development and technology transfer.

Detractors of university patenting and licensing point to such potential problems as conflicts of interest that may be created for faculty members, delays in publication of research results to accommodate patent filing or to benefit university-licensed companies, and the possible shift from basic research to more applied research, which has a higher potential for yielding patents and licenses. However, Mowery et al. found that there has been very little shift to more applied research due to the Bayh-Dole Act at Columbia University, Stanford University, or in the University of California System.

U.S. universities that are relatively more involved in technology transfer (indicated by invention disclosures, patents filed, start-up companies, and licensing royalties) are characterized by: (1) higher average faculty salaries; (2) a larger number of support staff for technology licensing; (3) a higher value of private gifts, grants, and contracts; and (4) larger research and development expenditures from industry and from federal sources.


DEVOL, ROSS C. 1999. America's High-Tech Economy: Growth, Development, and Risk for Metropolitan Areas. Santa Monica, CA: Miliken Institute.

MASSING, DONALD E. 1998. AUTM Licensing Survey: FY 1997. Norwalk, CT: Association of University Technology Managers.

MOWERY, DAVID C.; NELSON, RICHARD R.; SAMPAT, BHAVEN N.; and ZIEDONIS, ARVIDS A. 1999. "The Effects of the Bayh-Dole Act on U.S. University Research and Technology Transfer." In Industrializing Knowledge: University-Industry Linkages in Japan and the United States, ed. Lewis M. Branscomb, Fumio Kodama, and Richard Florida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

ROGERS, EVERETT M. 1995. Diffusion of Innovations, 4th edition. New York: Free Press.

ROGERS, EVERETT M.; HALL, BRAD J.; HASHIMOTO, MICHIO; STEFFENSEN, MORTON; SPEAKMAN, KRISTEN L.; and TIMKO, MOLLY K. 1999. "Technology Transfer from University-Based Research Centers: University of New Mexico Experience." Journal of Higher Education 70 (6):687–705.

ROGERS, EVERETT M.; YIN, JING; and HOFFMANN, JOERN. 2000. "Assessing the Effectiveness of Technology Transfer Offices at U.S. Research Universities." Journal of the Association of University Technology Managers 12:43–80.

SLAUGHTER, SHEILA, and LESLIE, LARRY L. 1997. Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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