The great KCA debate: Institutional Tech Transfer – Does it Work?

Athena Prib RTTP attended the Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA) conference in Brisbane 2014, she recounts one of her favourite sessions that kick started an inspiring conference.

The great debate opened the KCA conference this year “Institutional Tech Transfer: Does it Work?”

Much like the theme of the conference, “Commercialisation: There are no rules”, was the approach taken at the debate. Lively debaters Jason Armstrong, Manager, Brisbane Technology Centre, Boeing and Kevin Cullen, RTTP and CEO, NewSouth Innovations fought it out on the Yes team, while Chris Behrenbruch, CEO, ImaginAb and Mark Harvey, Deputy Vice Chancelor of Research and Innovation, University of Southern Queensland argued for the No team. The debate was moderated by a modestly biased Dean Moss, CEO of Uniquest.

Jason, initiated the debate with a factual, soft and alluring presentation on the history of events in institutional technology transfer, providing a list of examples of technology such as IVF and Biota transferred from Monash, wireless LAN and AMGem from CSIRO, the Gardasil vaccine transferred from UQ, Seeing Machines from ANU, Sirtex from UWA, Mesoblast from Hanson Institute and CRC Advanced Composite Structures & CRC-IMST to Boeing Aerostructures Australia.

He quoted Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, as voice of authority “With (Australia having) 0.3 per cent of the world’s population and 3 per cent of the world’s research output, we do a lot right.”

Chris came in swinging, happy to exaggerate with humour and throwing statistics at the crowd to support his argument. Painting a decidedly grim image that research and industry engaged badly, he back up these claims with a Grattan report of interviewed CEOs in Australia (refer to image) on effectiveness of relationships between organisations.

Image courtesy of Chris Behrenbruch, Grattan Institute Survey of CEO / technology transfer professionals.

Accusations were also thrown at the Australian institutions that they treat PhDs like slaves; this was in direct comparison to other nations that treated their PhD students as next generation innovators. This was backed up with statistics stating that 1 in 30 Aussie PhD’s will disclose a new a idea, whereas 1 in 8 PhDs globally will disclose a new idea.

Further to this Chris made a whip-lashing comment to the technology transfer community to ‘stop regulating academics. Let them consult, give them that freedom to explore, make new relationships.’

Kevin jumped into respond to this rhetoric, “that we already do”. He was astounded by indicators of success judged only whether a dollar was made.  He made a strong parallel to a friend who was chairing  a debate in Scotland on the Independence Referendum.  He said, “friends, this debate asks us to decide. Do we grasp this once in a lifetime chance for liberty and freedom, or choose instead to remain enslaved under the yoke of English Imperialist oppression?” Kevin translated this to the technology transfer debate as a ‘balanced’ introduction that, Dean Moss really should have started with, “Do we support the noble profession of academic technology transfer and its desire to see tax-payer funded, world-class research create a better world for our children or, do we choose instead to support the greed and glory agenda of those who would seek to benefit from research personally to the detriment of humanity?”

Mark Harvey stepped up to round out the lively discussion under the pretense from the moderator that he would talk from the heart, but shocked the crowd by shooting straight from the hip. He drew attention to the University’s obsession with publications, in particular, an obsession that motivated them relentlessly towards one Publication, ‘Nature.’  He surmised that we as institutional technology transfer were broken. How could we not be when all we do is rate ourselves on publications, citations, ERAs and other such international rating systems… when universities, as a token statement to their policy, promote academics for their significant commercial endeavors.  In dramatic irony, Mark concluded his argument by asking the audience to repeat the line from one of the final compelling scenes from the film Good Will Hunting, where actor Robin Williams (plays Sean) forces admission to Matt Damon (plays Will) of the reality of the situation.   A person from the crowd shouts out “its not your fault”, he asks the member to stand up repeat “its not your fault”. Mark then asks the crowd to repeat it with him.  Technology transfer: its not your fault.

Quite a finish to the debate. Dean, opens questions and comments and then final show of hands from the crowd to get an idea of their where their vote may lie.

The Yes team, sadly loses to the show of hands by the crowd.

Has the system caused us, technology transfer professionals, to feel that broken, that the small wins we do make aren’t counted at all?

But I like to think that crowd may have thought they were judging the debate on “Does it work well?” rather than, “Does it work?”  As one of the crowd commented, Tim Carroll Manager, Innovation & Commercial Development at Latrobe University, “If the questions was does it work well – No.  Is it necessary – Yes.”  As well as Rob Chalmers, Chair of KCA and MD at Adelaide Research and Innovation via twitter suggests “Great debate kicked off our conference on whether tech transfer works: there are successes but structural change needed.”

And that’s why I guess our un-biased moderator gave the win to the Yes team, despite the crowd’s show of hands otherwise.

Much like the KCA people’s choice awards this year (by the way congrats to Swinburne on turning up the heat on social media), I suggest that we widen the poll to the entire Knowledge Exchange community for robust discussion.

Institutional tech transfer: does it work?